Seeing Madonna’s Instagram feed last week, after she’d strutted her stuff in Harlem, broke my heart.
The heavily filtered images posted online didn’t match the pictures taken by delighted onlookers: the former conforming to a skewed societal ideal of what is beautiful; the latter showing what the 63-year-old icon actually looks like.
Her pores had been eradicated, the shape of her face altered to make it look more chiselled, and her eyes and teeth had been whitened.
That Madonna, one of the most talented female artists in existence has fallen victim to the relentless pressure to show up online looking a certain way, utterly depresses me.
If a woman of Madonna’s legendary talent isn’t comfortable enough in her own skin to bare an authentic version of it to the world, what hope is there for the rest of us?
She’ll have used a filtering app (or her social media team will) that magically takes pictures of the real you and paints them up better — altering the structure of your face, erasing perceived flaws and making it look like you’ve spent hours in a make-up artist’s chair.
Immaterial girl: Even Madonna has fallen for filters. Pictured: Reality (left), Instagram (right)
There are hundreds of these filters available, which women in particular are encouraged to use by social media platforms. Before last February, beauty brands even applied them to advertising images, making them look as though their products give better results.
For my campaign calling on people to stop using filters (#filterdrop), I spent six months persuading the Advertising Standards Authority that this is false advertising.
As an experienced make-up artist, I know there isn’t a product in existence that can make you look as perfect as a filter can. I’m proud to say the rules have been tightened to stop that. But, on social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok, their use is still rife.
We see them on celebrities, social media influencers and reality show stars. But they’re also used by women in their 40s, 50s and beyond, who prefer the smoothed out, age-defying version of themselves filters allow them to present.
Campaigner Sasha Pallari is calling on people to stop using filters. Pictured: Reality (left), with filter (right)
How Jeremy Clarkson’s daughter exposed fraud: Emily Clarkson posted filtered (right) and natural images (left) last year to highlight the reality
At one end of the scale, they can add sparkle to your eyes or make you look fresher faced. At the other, they’ll smooth away every pore and wrinkle, chiselling your cheek bones and tightening your chin before slapping on a dramatic face of make-up that even an experienced artist like me couldn’t recreate.
The results that can be achieved — while, crucially, still looking like the person in the original image — are astonishing. Being able to look that good, even if it is faked, becomes addictive. And I should know. Until a few years ago every picture of mine went through a filter to make me look slimmer, prettier, more glamorous.
It got so bad that the thought of posting a picture of the real me online made me feel sick.
When I realised, two years ago, that between the ages of 22 and 27 I don’t have a single picture of myself where I truly look like me, it was a shock.
I felt like part of my past had gone missing; that I’d erased five years of my journey through life because I didn’t want to look like the real me.
And I’m just one in a generation of women who I’m sure will, one day, experience the same depressing realisation.
How did it come to this? It started innocently with the Snapchat filters that added a pair of bunny ears or made you look like a talking puppy.
Gradually, more filters were added that gave you sparkly eyes, a clearer complexion and slimmed down your face. I couldn’t get enough of them. Since childhood, I’ve struggled with my self-confidence. I was bigger than my friends and hated looking different to them. Suddenly filters levelled the playing field. Before long, I couldn’t take a picture without one.
Enhanced: Khloe Kardashian was criticised in 2020 for altering her image. Pictured: Reality (left), Instagram (right)
From lighting to angles, how stars present their best face…
But I began to realise that while my confidence was boosted online, it was non-existent in real life. And so, towards the end of 2019, I began weaning myself off them. I stopped using any that structurally altered my face.
That way, there would be only one version of me in existence and I could begin to work on accepting her, knowing that I’ve much more to offer the world than how I look.
I was quietly continuing down this path, using filters with an ever-lighter touch, when lockdown hit. I was spending more time than usual on my phone, and it hit me that I rarely saw anyone unfiltered.
One evening, I posted a video of myself asking whether anyone else felt as disturbed as I did that we don’t see real skin online any more. I posted an unfiltered picture of myself and encouraged other people to do the same with the hashtag #filterdrop.
The response was astonishing. People told me I was brave and inspirational, yet all I was doing was showing them what I really look like. Dropping filters became a liberation. Since I launched #filterdrop in June 2020, thousands of women have taken part.
This has triggered a wider conversation about the vicious cycle of being bombarded with faked versions of so-called perfection that make us feel horrible about ourselves, encouraging us to reach for the filters even more.
It’s a conversation we need to keep having. If a girl sees her mum using a filter, it normalises that behaviour: she’ll copy it without question and the cycle begins.
Above all, we need to place more value on the things we achieve that have nothing to do with how we look. And media companies, brands and platforms in positions of power need to follow suit.
Because as it is, we’ve reached a point where even Madonna doesn’t believe that the real her is good enough.
If that isn’t a wake-up call then I don’t know what is.