This story begins with two women: Giulia & Julia.
My college roommate, Giulia, grew up in São Paulo, Brazil and moved to L.A. for university. During the first year we lived together, her childhood friend Julia also moved to L.A. to start her career as a model.
Giulia and Julia have known each other their entire lives. Both women are beautiful, and Julia is especially stunning with supermodel proportions. After she was signed by a modeling agency, she would get all kinds of clothes for free. That’s how Giulia ended up with boxes and boxes of expensive, barely-worn swimwear.
What do you do with a bunch of bikinis? Go to the beach, of course! Giulia liked photography and she showed me how to pose. She took a picture of me kneeling provocatively on the sand, as if this were a Maxim photoshoot instead of two teenagers with an iPhone 4.
I watched while Giulia uploaded the photo to an editing app. First, she added a filter that made my pink skin glow with the illusion of melanin. Then she zoomed in, and with expert fingers, casually pinched my waist.
The result was subtle, but the difference between the two photos punched me in the gut. My unedited body looked all wrong now. The new body on the screen was the proper color and shape.
I uploaded the edited photo to my Instagram. But each time someone “liked” it, I felt guilty. They weren’t liking the real me.
Fast forward to the present: I don’t take many pictures of myself and I rarely share anything on social media. I don’t typically feel self-conscious about my body.
Until today. I’m going through photos from our wedding because I want to make a Facebook update. My mom took plenty of pictures at the courthouse, and honestly, they turned out fine. Yet I examine each one with a critical eye. I’m suddenly insecure.
It was 97° when we got married. My face was red from the heat and puffy from crying during our vows. The pimples on my neck glare at me from my phone screen. My teeth are stained yellow. There’s no hourglass curve in sight.
I’m aware that my body type and features have historically (unfortunately) been placed on a pedestal. Even so, all I see are flaws when I look at photos of myself.
So I download the same app Giulia showed me years ago.
I smooth my pimples and whiten my teeth, but try to keep it natural. “Pores are normal,” I tell myself, “teeth shouldn’t be paper white.” Then I discover a tool to erase the crinkles under my smiling eyes.
But I don’t have Giulia’s delicate touch. I edit too much. When I compare the blurred version of my face to the original, it doesn’t even look like me. My smile is not authentic without those creases beneath my eyes.
I feel silly. Screw it. I upload the untouched photos.
I suppose it’s for the best that I suck at photo editing, because I don’t ever again want to alter how I look. It makes me feel like a fraud.
With that said, I have zero judgement for anyone who chooses to edit their digital self. Yes, even social media influencers. It’s true that they influence millions of people to feel worse about their appearance. However, I think it’s a case of victims becoming the offenders.
Even the most genetically blessed people in the world are vulnerable to insecurity and suffer immense pressure to appear more flawless than is humanly possible. If I had millions of eyes viewing images of my body, I too would obsess over every pixel.
You know who I really feel bad for? Gen Z. Not only is photo editing normalized across social media, but body filters are common on TikTok and are becoming more and more indiscernible in videos. In the future it will be difficult to accept the raw version of ourselves.
I know Giulia never meant any harm with her photo edits. She was following the Golden Rule, “treat others as you want them to treat you,” and back then, I viewed her efforts as a kindness. I suppose subconsciously, we were both trying to emulate Julia, although it’s not as if Julia’s modeling photos remain unedited.
There will always be dots and spots on my face that I wish to airbrush away. I could endlessly analyze the outlines of my body and bend them to suit some idea of perfection.
But I don’t want to. My goal is to embrace my own reality no matter what it looks like.