In the early 2000s, you couldn’t do much to edit photos beyond correcting red eyes with a special pen. Now, smartphones offer access to a vast array of filters and editing tools that allow you to retouch selfies and create pretty much any revision of yourself you can imagine.
Filtering your selfies isn’t necessarily harmful. Often, it’s nothing more than a fun exercise, like dressing up or experimenting with a new makeup style.
Yet constant exposure to heavily filtered selfies can create something of a disconnect from reality. Viewing only photos where people have erased their perceived flaws can make it harder to remember that everyone does, in fact, have imperfections.
Snapchat dysmorphia, to put it simply, happens when you compare filtered selfies to your actual appearance. When you fixate on your perceived flaws, the feelings of discontent and unhappiness that surface might lead you to wish you could alter your features to match those filtered images.
Below, you’ll find an in-depth exploration of Snapchat dysmorphia, plus a few tips on navigating these feelings.
Snapchat dysmorphia isn’t an official mental health diagnosis, so experts have yet to determine a standard definition, criteria, or symptoms.
The term itself came into use after plastic surgeons began to report that a number of clients wanted cosmetic procedures to match the filtered version of themselves — changes not always possible in reality.
Maybe you’ve had some experience filtering your selfies on social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram — erasing pimples, brightening your hair or complexion, trimming your nose, or adding a bit of muscle definition.
This alone doesn’t translate to Snapchat dysmorphia. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting a cosmetic procedure to change something about your appearance.
A few signs that could suggest your selfie-filtering habit might warrant some close consideration:
- You fixate on your appearance in selfies, to the point where the real you no longer measures up.
- You find yourself preoccupied with “flaws” no one else notices, like the shape of your eyebrows or the size of your forehead.
- You spend a lot of time taking and retaking selfies, then filtering and editing them to get them just right.
- You frequently review older selfies to check for flaws or imperfections.
- Drawing comparisons between yourself and others leaves you unhappy with your appearance.
- You want to change your appearance because you believe you “should” look a certain way.
- You often find yourself spending more time than you planned taking selfies or editing them.
- You spend a lot of time exploring ways to alter your appearance to match your selfies.
- The filtered version of yourself feels more like the “real” you. In other words, you’ve lost your sense of how you actually look.
- Taking, editing, and posting selfies often leads to anxiety, distress, worry, and other unwanted emotions.
- The more time you spend taking selfies, the worse you feel about your own appearance.
- No matter how often you resolve to stop taking and editing selfies, you find it difficult to give up.
Snapchat dysmorphia generally means taking and editing selfies no longer feels fun. Yet even though your selfies leave you feeling sad, frustrated, or distressed with your actual appearance, you can’t seem to stop taking them.
You might already face plenty of pressure to conform to idealized standards of beauty in everyday life — from advertisements, television, other forms of media, or even your friends and loved ones.
Social media often only serves to magnify this pressure. The images you see generally don’t offer an accurate or realistic portrayal of how people really look, for one. But beyond filtering and editing selfies, people can also choose to post only images that show their “best” selves.
Unlike celebrities in other forms of media, the people in your social media circle might seem more ordinary, even when you don’t know them personally. So, while you might already assume every magazine image you come across is airbrushed, you might not automatically assume every selfie you encounter has been filtered.
It’s also worth considering how often you encounter selfies. Survey estimates from 2021 suggest it’s pretty often:
- Among U.S. adults who use Snapchat and Instagram, 59 percent say they use these apps daily.
- Among Snapchat users between the ages of 18 and 29, 71 percent use the app daily, and 60 percent use it more than once per day.
- Among Instagram users between the ages of 18 and 29, 73 percent use the app daily, and 53 percent use it more than once per day.
The more you look at filtered selfies, the more you might begin to wonder why you don’t look as perfect as others always seem to appear. Eventually, this might lead you to fixate on ways you could change yourself to improve your own photos.
Spending a lot of time taking and reviewing your own selfies also makes it easier to find things you dislike about your own appearance.
According to one
You won’t find Snapchat dysmorphia in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).” All the same, some of the key signs do resemble a mental health condition known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
This condition falls into the broader DSM-5 category of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. It involves three key signs:
- Extreme concern over perceived flaws in your appearance. You might find yourself fixating on these imperfections — slightly uneven eyes, thin lips, or the bump on your nose — and believe they make you unattractive or unappealing. Others barely notice them, if they notice them at all.
- Frequent, repeated checking of perceived flaws. Maybe you spend a lot of time trying to conceal the feature in question, checking it in mirrors, asking others if they notice it, or comparing yourself with others. These behaviors can take up hours each day, and they often worsen feelings of dissatisfaction and distress.
- A fixation on the flaw that affects daily life. Both your preoccupation with the perceived imperfection and your attempts to conceal or get rid of it cause distress and disrupt your daily activities. Checking your appearance constantly and trying to hide the feature doesn’t really help you feel any better. Still, you may not find it easy or possible to stop.
Social media apps can easily fuel these feelings. After all, your smartphone offers a convenient tool, always ready in the pocket or palm of your hand, to check on the parts of your appearance you consider flawed or unappealing.
While selfie filters and editing features don’t get rid of the flaw in reality, they do allow you to view an image of yourself without it. Comparing your actual self to the filtered version of you, then, might only add to feelings of anxiety, dysphoria, or even shame.
Eventually, BDD can lead to:
- avoidance of social situations, including school or work
- difficulty managing everyday responsibilities, including parenting and other caregiving
- a drop in quality of life
- thoughts of suicide
Need support now?
If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or ending your life, know that you’re not alone.
Overwhelming emotions can be difficult to navigate, but you don’t have to cope alone.
You can get free, confidential, 24/7 support from trained crisis counselors by:
- calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
- texting “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741
With Snapchat dysmorphia, you might notice similar outcomes. Maybe you:
- spend so much time editing and reviewing selfies that you leave homework or work tasks incomplete
- cancel plans with friends because you feel embarrassed about your appearance
- ghost your cute, funny Tinder date because you’re afraid they’ll prefer your profile photo to the real you
- believe you won’t feel content with your appearance until you fix your flaws
Experts generally caution against pursuing cosmetic procedures or surgeries to match your actual features to filtered selfies. Cosmetic surgery is not problematic in itself. But it won’t help ease the discontent that stems from BDD. In fact, the DSM-5 notes that cosmetic procedures can actually make the condition worse.
Noticed some signs of Snapchat dysmorphia in your own social media habits? Taking a short break from social media could do a lot to help refresh your perspective.
If you don’t feel ready to give up selfie-sharing apps completely, these tips can also help:
- Stick to a time limit. It never hurts to set some boundaries on the time you spend taking and editing selfies. For example, if you generally spend 2 hours taking and editing selfies most days, challenge yourself to cut back to 1 hour per day, then 30 minutes.
- Change up your Snaps. As it turns out, plenty of people actually prefer other types of photos to selfies, according to 2017 research. Instead of snapping your own face to share, why not capture a moment from your day instead? That weird bug you found on the road, a bright sunrise, or even the view from your bedroom — any of these might offer an opportunity for more authentic interaction in your comments.
- Consider your social circle. When your friends and followers regularly take and share edited selfies, you might naturally feel a desire to keep up by posting your own. It could be worth trimming down your list to people you actually engage with — particularly those who share images beyond filtered selfies.
- Avoid comparing yourself with others. The urge to compare yourself with others can be tough to resist, but try to remember this: A good number of the selfies shared online are probably just as filtered as yours. If you don’t really know what other people truly look like, how can you draw any comparison at all?
If you’ve tried to cut back on Snapchat and Instagram — at least in terms of sharing selfies — but can’t seem to break the habit, reaching out to a therapist could help.
Connecting with a therapist is always a good next step when:
- Concerns about your appearance affect your mood and daily activities.
- The time you spend on selfies affects your responsibilities and relationships.
- You can’t stick to limits you set for yourself around social media use.
- You feel guilty, ashamed, or worried about the time you spend on selfies.
Plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures can’t treat BDD. A procedure might correct one “flaw,” true. But it can’t help you address the underlying thoughts leading you to believe your appearance is flawed. So, you might simply begin to focus on another area.
Therapy, on the other hand, can make a difference.
A mental health professional might recommend:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This approach teaches techniques to recognize, challenge, and reframe unwanted thoughts about your appearance.
- Exposure therapy. This approach helps you slowly expose yourself to triggering situations so you can learn and practice new ways to adjust your response to them.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy. This approach teaches strategies to mindfully accept and tolerate the distress caused by unwanted thoughts about your appearance.
- Metacognitive therapy. This approach helps you learn to recognize and challenge the internal process contributing to unwanted and distressing thoughts about your appearance, rather than those thoughts themselves.
Applying layers of filters and edits to create a “perfect” selfie can eventually lead to detachment from your true self. Plus, since perfection generally isn’t attainable, this quest may never actually end.
To sum up, taking and editing selfies isn’t a cause for concern — until it begins to prompt uncomfortable feelings, like unhappiness with your physical appearance. When snapping and editing selfies begins to feel more upsetting than fun, it may be worth setting your smartphone aside to reconnect with the real you.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.