AI Filters And Self-Perception: Body Image, Self-Esteem, And Modern Culture

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated May 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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Technology has taken a leap since 2010, with hundreds of inventions hitting the market yearly, including new digital software. As smartphones became more popular in the 21st century, developers started to allow users the capacity to create apps, interact with each other from afar, and send photos and videos. 

It wasn't until 2015 that artificial intelligence was integrated with social media to allow people to change their faces in photos and videos. Understanding how changes with AI have impacted body image and self-esteem may be beneficial in making the healthiest choices for yourself online as technology continues to evolve. 

Getty/Sarah Waiswa
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What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)? 

Artificial intelligence (AI) refers to technological systems that humans program to appear "intelligent" and to complete intellectual tasks similarly to human capabilities or even outside of human capability to make specific tasks more manageable. 

For example, AI can be taught to complete the following: 

  • Chat with individuals and offer personalized advice
  • Change one's appearance in the camera in real-time when taking photos or videos
  • Make predictions 
  • Drive self-driving cars
  • Recognize faces for secure entry to a location 
  • Write any piece of work both fictional and nonfictional 
  • Solve problems 

The four general types of AI include reactive, limited memory, theory-of-mind, and self-aware. Each type may be used differently to achieve specific goals. Although AI is controlled by the people who create it, some AI is trained to the point that it can be similar to or better than average human intelligence. 

What are AR and AI filters? 

Augmented reality (AR) filters were first used on social media in 2015 by Snapchat to allow people to overlay certain digital items, colors, or effects on their faces. These initial filters were less complex than modern artificial intelligence filters but had a similar framework. Despite their simple beginnings, the Snapchat AR filters changed facial structure, giving users a thinner nose and jaw structure. 

AI filters are more advanced than the initial AR filters. Some are used to add new clothes to the user, whereas others are used to completely change one's face, add makeup, or make someone's body thinner. Influencers and authoritative social media users often use these filters on their accounts to adverse their use. However, with AI being used so often, it can be challenging to know when someone is using a filter and when they aren't. 

How do AI beauty filters work? 

AI filters input a person's existing facial or bodily structure into a database of information. AI is trained using data pulled from by examining millions of pieces of information including photos and videos, allowing it to make educated guesses on what a person's face looks like and what filters might fit their face. Through some apps, a person can download a photo of themselves and receive hundreds of images back, with themselves in different locations or scenes. For example, someone can input themselves into different decades or historical periods to see what they might have looked like as a queen or a pirate. 

On social media platforms like TikTok, AI filters offer a quick generation of specific themed photos overlaying one's face. TikTok users can also use a makeup filter that changes their facial structure and puts them in realistic glamorous makeup that appears real. AI filters are distinguished from AR because they conform to the user's facial features and don't move around or become blurred when the user touches their face or changes location, as long as the whole face is visible. 

AI filters that can change your appearance use a type of machine learning called generative adversarial networks (GAN). These forms of AI completely regenerate each pixel in the photo or video, giving you a new face or body. For this reason, the filter may be perceived as more realistic than others. 

The consequences of AI filters on self-perception 

Despite their popularity, AI filters have been linked to several challenges with self-perception and self-esteem, including but not limited to the following. 

Unrealistic examples 

Like the "Bold Glamour" TikTok beauty filter, some filters completely change one's appearance. Although you may still look like yourself, your nose, facial bones, and other features may be reduced in size, while features like your lips and eyes may be increased in size. 

These tweaks in your appearance may be based on current trending appearances. Still, they are often an unrealistic example of what many people look like and can give the impression to those on certain apps that one should strive to look a certain way. However, because the filter changes the size of your facial features, the result of the filter cannot be achieved with makeup or superficial changes. 

Ilona Titova/EyeEm


As well as offering unrealistic beauty standards, filters can misinform users about what they're attempting to achieve. A filter can be advertised under names like "age filter" or "simple beauty," making it seem that they are natural ways to enhance your image. However, when used, they can completely change your face.

Reinforcement of unhealthy cultural biases

Stereotypes about what a person "should" look like have been rampant in the media for decades. Women and young people, in particular, are often bombarded with messages about their bodies, with an anti-fat culture and fatphobia continuing to rise in society. AI filters often thin the user's face and augment certain features like their lips to appear more "attractive." Some filters may thin a person's body or waist. Filters that can age a person down may allow older adults to see themselves as teenagers or young adults again. 

Due to these biases and the impact of social pressure, people on social media may strive to look like the filters and the influencers and celebrities that use and market them. It can be a more covert way of defining beauty standards online, which may harm mental health. 

Research on the impact of AI filters on self-esteem 

According to a study from 2020, body dysmorphia caused by online filters, now nicknamed "Snapchat dysmorphia,"  has arisen due to the emergence of more augmented filters. Researchers theorize that these filters can interrupt identity exploration in young people and that frequent use of AI filters can cause individuals to lose touch with sensory evidence of what they look like, causing them to rely more on AI to feel comfortable in their bodies. This challenge may lead to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). 

Another 2020 study found that self-objectification and low self-esteem were directly related to selfie editing through photo editor apps and filter usage. They concluded that poor body image could result from social media usage, which could predict how people treat their selfies in the future, editing their bodies and faces to match what they might see online. With AR and AI, many apps allow people to change each part of their face, one at a time. In addition, users can manually thin their waist or other parts of their bodies to make themselves appear skinnier. 

Can AI filters be used ethically? 

AI filters can be fun to use in moderation. However, they may not be healthy for certain groups of people, including but not limited to the following: 

  • Children 
  • Teenage girls and sensitive teenage populations 
  • Women with pre-existing body image challenges
  • People diagnosed with an eating disorder
  • Older individuals struggling with age-related bodily changes
  • People with a pattern of editing selfies 

In some cases, an AI filter is designed to be fun and interesting, like those that put you in a fantasy location, fancy clothing, or a new era. If you enjoy AI filters and find them fun to play around with, they may not be unhealthy for you. 

However, if you are an influencer with sensitive populations following you, it may be helpful to look at what messages you could send by using filters to change your appearance to your followers. 

How to cope with poor self-esteem due to online culture 

You're not alone if you have experienced the impact of online AI culture and filters. There are a few ways you can cope with the impacts of these filters., including the following: 

  • Limit your time online to 10 to 30 minutes a day 
  • Follow creators who don't use filters or change their bodies in photos 
  • Avoid using AI filters that change your facial structure, age, or body 
  • Avoid using body-editing apps that allow you to change your body's appearance
  • Practice self-care and affirmations 
  • Follow creators who encourage body neutrality, body positivity, and self-love 
  • Find traits in others you find attractive that you naturally have and remind yourself that the beauty you see in others can be seen in yourself, as well 
  • Try not to compare yourself to others online negatively
  • Don’t use filters that mock or make fun of specific traits, like a larger nose, heavier weight, or big forehead 
  • Remind yourself that many people use filters, body editing, makeup, and positioning to change their appearance
  • Remind yourself that social media does not reflect the success, happiness, or beauty of another person 

If you continue to struggle with body image and the desire to change your face or body, you may be living with body dysmorphic disorder or another underlying concern. In these cases, reaching out to a professional for support can be vital. 

Navigate body image challenges with a compassionate professional

Professional support options 

You don't have to have a mental illness or a diagnosis to meet with a professional. Many therapists work with individuals on body image, self-esteem, stress, and social media challenges in therapy. However, if you believe you may be experiencing an eating disorder, a therapist can guide you through official treatments for your symptoms. You're not alone, and help is available. 

If you feel most comfortable interacting with others online, you can also try an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. Through these platforms, you can choose between phone, video, and chat sessions. If you're uncomfortable showing your face, this variability allows you to take control over how you receive support. In addition, you can select a session time that works with your schedule and attend therapy from home. 

Studies back up the effectiveness of online therapy. One study of web-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) found it as effective as in-person options in treating eating disorders like binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. Treatment effects were sustained during the follow-up with clients. 


Body image and AI filters have become extrinsically linked in recent years, with trending filters changing the way individuals see themselves and interact with others online. In some cases, these filters can be a gateway to poor self-esteem, plastic surgery, and selfie-editing behaviors. People with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, or impressionable traits may be at risk of these impacts. 

You're not alone if you struggle with body image, social media usage, or other concerns. Consider contacting a licensed therapist to discuss these challenges in further detail and receive guidance and support.

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