Steven H. Dayan, MD, FACS is a facial plastic surgeon practicing in Chicago, IL. He is Co-Chief Medical Editor for Modern Aesthetics® magazine.
Are you familiar with the Snapchat Beauty filter? Has a patient recently come into your office phone in hand, scrolled to an idealized version of themselves with large eyes, flawless skin, pouty lips, and a narrowed chin and jawline? Or have you taken notice that acquaintances look significantly unreal in their Facebook posts? If you are not quite certain, but your curiosity is piqued, I suggest you find the nearest trusted Millennial and ask for a tour of the most popular image-morphing apps of today, a visit certain to rival your most warped Alice in Wonderland - like dreams. Snapchat's facial recognition software identifies facial features and then has the ability to morph a face to a more idealized and beautified version. It can also add characterizing cartooned features and even swap central features of faces between two different individuals (known as ‘face-swapping' to many a Snapchat aficionado). Snapchat isn't the only app that can instantly deliver an idealized version. FaceTune, another app I was recently introduced to by my social media-savvy teenaged kids, allows for the “photoshopping” of an image immediately after it's taken so that it can be posted in all its perfected glory. I am told by my Millennial informants that many, if not most, social media posted photos are tweaked to a perfected idealized “filtered” image. I am sure that there are many next generation imaging altering apps being developed and harnessed that will soon be ready to be released on a beauty-thirsting populous. As I find myself swatting at the myriad of buzzing false images circulating through my office, it caused me to pause and think what will these apps mean to the future of our profession?
In the short-term, it likely makes our jobs more difficult in that we will be tasked with meeting an idealized metric that is beyond reach. While we can probably educate our constituents to the reality, it is the longer-term consequences where perhaps we should concentrate the most.
Imagine a future where each is entitled to always present, view, and perceive an idealized version of one self. How we truly appear may never be known and cease to be relevant. All that may matter is what we think we look like. And if 70 percent of self-esteem is wrapped up in the perception of our own appearances, we can fool ourselves into believing we are more beautiful than we actually are. Perhaps, what we are, in fact, accomplishing is a virtually engineered improvement in self-esteem. Why need a surgeon/physician to alter our faces and self-esteem with knives and needles when it can be done with pixels and codes?
Imagine the surreal in which phones instantly recognize faces and then adjust them to a predetermined idealized version of how one wants to see themselves. Take it a step further: consider if all mirrors are smart. They can be programmed to instantly recognize faces and then morph it to the perfected version…whether it be thicker hair, bigger lips or different colored eyes. We could wake up happy with our appearance despite the facial-insulting effects of the previous night's mojito bender or the sodium-laden chicken fried rice. But, you ask, what about random reflections? What happens if walking down the street and an aversive true version of yourself is glimpsed in a car window or glass door? Well perhaps the next step in the virtual evolution would be smart contact lenses that will instantly recognize and morph any image of ourselves to our idealized version…and maybe these contact lenses could be programed to recognize romantic partners or spouses as an idealized version of themselves as well! We all can be married to the beauty of our choice.
Perhaps our idealized version could be programmed and projected in 3D holograms. I am quite sure if we saw ourselves in our full true glory we wouldn't like it. When you think about it, we don't really know what we look like to others. We only see ourselves in a flat 2D represented image whether it be in a mirror, reflection, or a photograph, but others see us from all angles and perspectives in three dimension. Seeing ourselves in 3D may make us uncomfortable, similar to how we feel when we hear our recorded voices. How far off until we bridge the uncanny valley to a self-satisfying, chosen idealized 3D humanoid like version of our selves? Our avatar emoji is only but a logical extension of the cartoon personalized bitmojis sent in text messages today.
I admit this extreme thinking is of sci-fi fiction, but can I be that far off? Remember it was just a little more than 100 years ago that in-house toilets and telephones became common, 65 years ago before we could consider a transatlantic flight, 25 years ago that a www lexicon could be understood and a slightly more than 10 years ago that Facebook was launched! Technology is doubling every 11 to 18 months and likely will accelerate beyond the methodical linear advancements of aesthetic medicine. If the practice of aesthetic medicine as we know it today is at risk for extinction within two generations, how will we adapt? Will we be ready for that? I, for one, remain optimistic, in all evolutionary processes when one niche contracts another expands.
But it is never too early to start the conversation.