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You’ve probably heard about the Bold Glamour TikTok filter, which contours your face, lifts your brows, plumps your lips, and zhuzhes you up in red carpet-style makeup. I recently tried it—with alarming results. (I love a gorgeous drag queen, but that look’s not for me.) According to a (paywalled) story from an MIT Technology Review newsletter, The Technocrat, the Bold Glamour filter has been used more than 16 million times since its release. As pointed out in the story, the aesthetic is impressive (which doesn’t necessarily mean flattering), but the most remarkable thing about it is that it doesn’t glitch, as other filters can, when you move. In other words, it’s nearly impossible to tell that the face you’re looking at isn’t real.
There are obvious reasons to be wary, if not scared, of the advanced technology the filter uses—among them its effect on the mental health of young girls, who are most vulnerable to the deleterious standards of an unattainable, racist, and classist beauty culture.
Another (paywalled) MIT Technology Review story reports subtler problems having to do with the use of AI in beauty culture, particularly in ways we’re likely unaware of.
For example, maybe you didn’t know that Microsoft backed a “robot beauty pageant” in 2016, which challenged entrants to develop the best AI to determine attractiveness. In March 2020, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, came under criticism for a memo that instructed content moderators to suppress videos that displayed, among other things, “ugly facial looks,” people who were “chubby,” those with “a disformatted face” or “lack of front teeth,” and “senior people with too many wrinkles.” And in 2018, Twitter released an auto-cropping tool for photographs that appeared to prioritize white people, which, when tested on images of Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell, consistently cropped out the former president. More from the MIT story:
Beauty scores… are part of a disturbing dynamic between an already unhealthy beauty culture and the recommendation algorithms we come across every day online. When scores are used to decide whose posts get surfaced on social media platforms, for example, it reinforces the definition of what is deemed attractive and takes attention away from those who do not fit the machine’s strict ideal… narrowing the types of pictures that are available to everybody…
It’s a vicious cycle: with more eyes on the content featuring attractive people, those images are able to gather higher engagement, so they are shown to still more people. Eventually, even when a high beauty score is not a direct reason a post is shown to you, it is an indirect factor.
“Recommendation algorithms are actually changing what our preferences are,” [says economist Lauren Rhue]. “And the challenge from a technology perspective, of course, is to not narrow them too much. When it comes to beauty, we are seeing much more of a narrowing than I would have expected.”
Obviously, the effects of this kind of manipulation are troubling.
In our corner of the store it seems the opportunities to feel crappy about the way we look are becoming increasingly available—and dangerous—as filters become harder to detect. My best advice for now: Look away! Look away!
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On a sweeter note: strawberries. Since arriving in Japan about six weeks ago, I’ve been gobbling up fresh, plump, sugary strawberries. They’re everywhere, from specialty food shops to grocery stores. I can get around a dozen for about $5 USD; not outrageously expensive, due to the weak yen. I was wondering why they’re so abundant, when L, my accidental muse, sent me this story (gifted for you) from the New York Times. I love that a young mother has figured out a way to subvert a vexing environmental issue (as you’ll learn when you dig into the article).
And speaking of vexing issues, a reader question.
Q: My facialist has recommended a series of treatments using a Jet Plasma pen. I’m tempted because she assures me it will make a noticeable difference in improving the crepey skin on my neck and otherwise rejuvenate my 53-year-old face. It’s not cheap: She recommends eight treatments at $2,000. I’ve done some research online and have found mostly good things—but I’d love your expert opinion on whether this treatment is effective and/or worth the cost!
A: First, thank you for bringing the Jet Plasma pen to my attention. You remind me that—as someone famously said—the more I know, the more I know I don’t know.
As far as my expert opinion goes: I don’t have one. And though I, like you, am curious, unlike you, I’m deeply skeptical about submitting to a facialist’s treatment with almost any kind of device. Something about your question activated my spidey senses. So I emailed HNTFUYF superhero (and DermDiva) Heidi Waldorf.
“It’s frightening that a facialist—who only may have completed a three-month cosmetology course to get certified as an aesthetician—is using a plasma pen,” says Waldorf. Why? In a word (a delicious one): electrofulgration. “The tip of the plasma pen is held just above the skin to pass an electric arc of current, which causes more superficial damage than [safer, but less delicious-sounding] electrodesiccation, where the device tip actually touches the skin,” she explains.
These forms of electrosurgery have been used since the 1920s. (Fun fact: Another name for the device is a “bovie,” as a neurosurgeon named William Bovie was the first to use it.) Both forms can be used for hemostasis (to control bleeding during surgery) or ablation (to destroy skin tags and seborrheic keratoses).
Plasma pens are marketed for skin tightening, particularly around the eyes, says Waldorf. Although there are people in aesthetic medicine and surgery who like to use them, the procedures are controversial. In fact, these devices were recalled in Canada in 2018 citing safety concerns. Though electrofulgration can trigger skin tightening when the micro-injuries to the skin stimulate collagen regeneration, there are risks associated with variability in treatment, says Waldorf. So…yikes: The use of too much electric current and/or current applied too close to or on the skin will cause a burn with subsequent risk of scarring, infection, and hyperpigmentation. When used on the eyelids, there’s also the risk of blindness. Particularly relevant to you, dear reader, the risk of scarring is even higher on the neck than the face due to fewer sebaceous glands and hair follicles.
Rather than plunking down $2,000 for a treatment that could leave you needing more treatment, Waldorf suggests you consult with a board certified dermatologist who has extensive aesthetic experience. Surgical specialty residency programs include practicing the effective use of electrosurgery. Better to give yourself the opportunity to discuss safer options administered by capable hands.
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A Moment of Personal Horn-Blowing
HNTFUYF was recently included in a roundup of the “23 Best Health and Wellness Newsletters of 2023” by the (what else?) health and wellness website Ness. Thanks, Ness, and thanks to all you HNTFUYF-ers for inspiring me with your thoughtful questions and comments. xo
HNTFUYF, a Payola-Free Zone
Readers, a few of you have asked if I get a cut from sales when I mention a product. I do not. I only mention products I’d like to buy myself, and therefore think you might like, too. I share this so you know my recommendations are offered without obligation.
Val Asks You
Don’t be shy! What’s your most vexing or intractable appearance issue? Send your beauty-related questions to email@example.com. If I don’t have a good answer, I’ll find someone who does.
I'd rather look at Obama than McConnell any day.
I have a feeling we're going to get tired of these filters toot suite because they make everybody look... the same. I'm curious to see where we go when beauty isn't rare. Because, after all, isn't that what makes it special?