Two portraits of Mahalia, 19. The left photo shows an unedited selfie and the right shows the same photo but after it has heavily edited by MahaliaRankin

Be honest, how much do you edit YOUR selfies?

Are these the most revealing photographs ever taken?

Moya Lothian-McLean

How long does snapping a selfie take you? Well, first you’ve got to find the perfect angle. Then position yourself at the point where the light hits your face just right while simultaneously directing your gaze so the effect is more ‘smize’ and less ‘three vodka tonics’.

And let’s face it, it’s going to be at least 20 pics until you’ve fully warmed up the model within. And even then, your final snaps are missing a little something - time for some filters and editing!

Now, Selfie Harm, a new project from fashion photographer Rankin, is revealing just how warped our selfie culture is.

Having photographed everyone from Kate Moss to the actual Queen, Rankin has helped shape modern photography and portraiture as we know it. And for his latest enterprise, Rankin snapped portraits of 15 British teenagers, then handed over the reins to his subjects to edit until they felt the images were "social media ready".

The results are a sucker punch.

Each one tinkered with their photographs, with the most common alterations being smoother skin, enhanced eyes and thinner noses. Not one left their image untouched.

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Rankin’s project is the latest addition to an ongoing conversation about the effects of social media on body image. While we all love to present our best selves online (as Drake said, gotta get them angles), over the past few years there’s been increasing concern about just how much damage readily available apps that can change our entire appearance in just a few clicks are doing to young people’s self-image.

And with one study suggesting that the average millennial will take 25,700 selfies during their lifetime - which averages out to about one a day - there’s no better time to talk. 

“It’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image,” says Rankin of the project, which is part of a wider initiative to explore the impact of imagery on our mental health.

“Social media has made everyone into their own brand. People are creating a two-dimensional version of themselves at the perfect angle, with the most flattering lighting and with any apparent ‘flaws’ removed. Mix this readily-available technology with the celebrities and influencers flaunting impossible shapes with impossible faces and we’ve got a recipe for disaster.”

Some celebs have spoken out about the dangers of filters and editing apps, including actress Jameela Jamil. “Ban FaceTune... So angry with FaceTune,” Jamil told ELLE.com. “I honestly sometimes wonder if cosmetic surgeons invest in it or something, because naturally, if you constantly see your nose tiny, you’re going to want to go out and match what you see in the app. Either way, I don’t think it’s healthy.”

And actress Priyanka Chopra has posted filter-free snaps on her Instagram page.

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In 2017, Instagram was rated the worst social media platform for mental health by people aged 14-24, with Snapchat coming in just above it. Both are heavily image-focused. Their impact is such that cosmetic surgeons have identified a new trend among would-be-patients approaching them for procedures which will make them resemble their digitally-altered likenesses, dubbed ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ by Dr Tijon Esho.

Emily, 22, says her constant use of a selfie editor app has made her consider cosmetic procedures. “I use it every time I take a photo. I hate my chin so sometimes make that smaller, smooth out my face and whiten my teeth,” she reels off.

“Before I was ‘meh’ about my teeth but now I want them professionally whitened after seeing how they look post-edit. Ideally, I’d have my chin, lips, teeth [altered cosmetically] and liposuction. But whitening is my main goal as it’s least invasive and least costly. I want to look like an edited version of myself, essentially.”

And Emily believes that being exposed to people on social media who’ve already made their Insta-faces a reality is part of the problem, too.

“I think seeing influencers who’ve clearly committed and had the surgery makes me more seriously think ‘I could do that’. Or if they did it and have a bigger following than me, maybe I should do it too.”

Fellow filter-disciple Ben, 25, reports that using photo-editing apps and Snapchat lenses give him a self-esteem boost. “I look at myself and try to feel more positive about my appearance but using filters make things better somehow,” he says.

“I have considered cosmetic surgery to make myself more confident; I’ve thought about a nose job, or some lip and cheekbone touch-ups. [But] surgery scares me and I’m not willing to fork over the money unless I really feel I can make it happen.”

And even those who aren’t plugged into beauty trends will have clocked the rise of the ‘Insta baddie’ aesthetic, a look pioneered by the likes of Kim Kardashian (who else would it be?). The look – which is defined by fuller lips, large, Kewpie doll eyes, a slim nose and aristocratic cheekbones – is one that the most popular Snapchat lenses like the pink furry ears (you know which ones) and the dog filter, favoured by celebrities like Ariana Grande, mimic.

Together they’ve helped create a new beauty ideal that – in totally expected news – experts say is almost impossible to come by naturally and needs tackling before it causes lasting damage to young people’s body image. Over the past few years, despite a decrease in traditional cosmetic surgery, 'non-surgical' procedures, like dermal fillers and Boxtox, which produce the aesthetic prized by Instagram, have sky-rocketed in popularity, partly thanks to millennials seeking quick and easily accessible 'fixes' for their insecurities. 

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"When we compare ourselves to other people, that has the potential to affect the valuation of ourselves," said Jennifer Mills, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, Toronto. Jennifer's 2018 study found young women felt worse about their own body image when exposed to social media posts of people they thought were more attractive than themselves. 

“We really need to educate young people on how social media use could be making them feel about themselves and how this could even be linked to stringent dieting, eating disorders or excessive exercise. There are people who may be triggered by social media and who are especially vulnerable."

But how to identify when overusing the deer filter is a sign of something more troubling?

“These filters are something very new and, in my opinion, a lot more dangerous," muses Rankin.

“It’s like giving a teenager access to a Photoshop expert. We need to spark debate and discussion around [their usage]. Even to have a hashtag that says #notfiltered or #notfacetuned would be a start. Every platform is full of hyper-retouched and highly addictive imagery and it’s messing people up.”

If you have experienced any of the issues raised in this piece and want some more information or advice, you can find it here