LIFESTYLE

Let's Be Honest: Snapchat Filters Are A Little Racist

We don't have small noses, small lips or sparkly eyes. And that's just fine.

25/01/2017 14:57 SAST | Updated 13/02/2017 17:09 SAST

Even if you're not a Snapchat user, you've probably seen its flower-crowns and butterfly haloes in Twitter avatars, Facebook profile pictures and Instagram posts. But it's Snapchat's "beauty filters" that have come under scrutiny in recent months with some going so far as to describe this as the "new bleach".

The popular app allows you to send augmented pictures and video to your followers, knowing that the message will "self destruct" after a set period. While augmenting your image with a bee or puppy filter may be harmless fun, if you're a black woman, some filters can be simply harmful to your self-image.

HuffPost UK reporter Rosy Sherrington has pointed out that filters are like make-up or cosmetic surgery, but instant and without the thousand-pound price tag. When applied, a user's face morphs into a brighter, often light-skinned, blemish-free and slimmed down version of the original, sparkly-eyed and with a small nose. You may even end up with thinner, different coloured lips and blushed cheeks. Put simply, facial features are tweaked to suit Western standards of beauty.

Shandukani Mulaudzi/ Mpilo Mnyanda

If we're to call a spade a spade, SnapChat filters are racist. They are whitewashed and they are problematic. In general, black and Asian people do not have sparkly, almost-blue looking eyes. We don't have narrow noses nor do we have naturally rosy cheeks and small lips.

Although Snapchat filters have quickly become the most popular feature of the app, this kind of whitewashing of image is not unique to it. Before the photo-sharing app Instagram introduced the edit function to its filters, most of them did not allow users to adjust the tone according to their preference. The result was white-washing for people of colour.

Writer Morgan Jerkins called Instagram out for the same issue back in 2015. "When Instagram filters brighten skin tones, those changes have both racial and cultural implications," she wrote.

Snapchat hasn't adjusted the filters following this criticism and hasn't responded to questions by news organisations like BBC and BuzzFeed about the racial implications of its filters. It also failed to respond to queries from HuffPost South Africa.

This warping of features isn't exactly new. Women have been fighting the same battle in the magazine and fashion industries for years, but over the use of photo-editing programmes like Photoshop. Over the years celebrities from Lady Gaga to Lorde have complained about being Photoshopped without permission, saying that removing blemishes and slimming down body parts creates unrealistic expectations of perfection.

When all you see daily is perfectly contoured faces in all the media you consume, it's difficult to adopt the Alicia Keys make-up and filter-free lifestyle. The "Blended Family" singer recently decided to stop wearing make-up as a form of self-empowerment.

In the morning from the minute that I wake up / What if I don't want to put on all that makeup / Who says I must conceal what I'm made of / Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem.Alicia Keyes, "When a Girl Can't Be Herself"

For black celebrities, the retouching often takes the form of skin lightening. In 2015, "Scandal" star Kerry Washington's skin was lightened on the cover of InStyle magazine. It happened again in 2016 on the cover of Adweek. Washington told Oprah Winfrey she especially felt uncomfortable because the cover made her feel the little girl in her who didn't believe she wasn't enough.

I know that I'm enough. So don't make me feel like I'm not enough by changing me to fit some idea of what you think I'm supposed to look like. What I look like is OK.Kerry Washington

Snapchat filters reinforce beauty norms and we shouldn't let these faux pas slide. We have to keep talking about them until it becomes the norm to use make-up and filters to embolden our striking features, not to minimise them.

It's like Kerry Washington said, "The notion that we are not enough is a lie." We are enough and we do not need anyone — or any app — telling us we aren't.

The package on colourism that Huffington Post South Africa is publishing today came from a conversation in the office as we were getting ready to launch: "Guys, we should do a video on all the ridiculous things dark-skinned women hear all the time." The choruses of "Yes!" and the stream of anecdotes – funny and awful – showed that this was an untapped well of stories waiting to be told in South Africa. We are aware that colourism exists but we're still likely to joke about "yellow bones" with the rest of our friends. Conversations about why every aspect of this culture is problematic is silenced with: "But skin lightening is a personal choice". Except that it isn't. In our series of stories we show the harmful effects of this obsession in our society – from a personal, social and economic point of view. We look at how illegal creams are still sold and how upmarket legal alternatives are still questionable. We look into small communities, like Indians in South Africa, where colourism still thrives, and talk to celebrities about why they lightened their skin. Because as a dark-skinned woman myself, I'm ready for change, and so is our society. — Verashni Pillay, Editor-in-Chief

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