Is there a downside to nostalgia?
While the cultural obsession with our appearance has been around seemingly forever, it seems like 2023 has been the year of the face. Between Ozempic face and buccal fat removal, there’s been a growing fascination with our mugs. The latest facial trend is happening not at the plastic surgeon’s office, but on TikTok, thanks to the Teenage Look filter. The filter is pretty much what it sounds like: You point the camera at your visage, and a teenage version of yourself stares back at you. Coming face-to-face with their teenage selves is provoking an emotional response from some TikTok users. So what’s the deal? Should you try it? We’re explaining what you need to know about the effect, and why it’s taken TikTok by storm.
What is the Teenage Look filter?
Like many beauty effects on TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, you use the Teenage Look filter by pointing the camera at your face. From there, the filter does its magic, and a de-aged version of yourself will be staring back at you — sort of.
Anyone who’s been a teenager knows that it’s not exactly the time in your life when you’re known for having the best skin. And yet, TikTok’s version of the teenager has not a pimple or dry skin patch in sight. The filter smooths the face so much that not only do you not have any blemishes, you don’t appear to have pores, either. I tried it out, and in some ways, it’s not much different from any run-of-the-mill overly blurred filter or Facetuned selfie. But the teenage filter also notably fills out the cheeks (there’s that buccal fat again). If you shed your baby fat post-adolescence, you might recognize those chipmunk-like cheeks from your youth.
Why are people getting emotional over it?
When you were younger, you might have done an exercise where you wrote yourself a letter to open in the future, or filled and buried a time capsule. If you opened that piece of history up today, it might make you feel a little nostalgic. That’s kind of what’s happening with the Teenage Look filter, except that for TikTok users who went through difficult teenage years, seeing their “younger” selves is bringing up a lot more complicated emotions.
Body positivity activist and model Tess Holiday tried out the filter, asking, “Why does this low-key kind of make me sad and creep me out?”
“There’s so much I want to tell her,” said one user, after saying of the filter, “This makes me so sad.”
But why is it making people sad? One user put it plainly: “For those of you who are wondering why us old people are getting so emotional over this teenage filter, it’s because some of us were so busy just surviving that we never stopped to truly look ourselves in the eyes. If only I could go back and tell her how beautiful she was.” (Personally, and this is not a humble brag about my age-defying skin, but I didn’t feel like the Teenage Look filter actually looked like me as a teenager. I looked way worse in my teens.)
For people who really do feel like they’ve traveled back in time via the social media app, it makes sense that they might feel emotional and wish they could speak to their younger selves.
Is the Teenage Look filter problematic?
Problematic filters do exist: Snapchat faced backlash on multiple occasions for filters that promoted racist stereotypes, for instance, and on apps like TikTok and Instagram, some of the more dramatic facial transformation effects can cause feelings of insecurity (which we’ll get to). But the Teenage Look lens doesn’t seem to be one of those, at least not yet. Based on people’s reactions, it seems to be eliciting a wistful response, not genuine distress — although if you had a traumatic upbringing, it could be triggering. Compared to other filters that are currently trending, the Teenage Look filter is on the less problematic end of the spectrum. One filter that is a little questionable that’s making the rounds right now is called Bold Makeup.
Bold Makeup is more or less what it sounds like: It gives the person looking into the camera a heavy smokey eye, full eyebrows, and lipstick. Imagine getting a full face of makeup done for a wedding, and it’s kind of like that. I tried it out and noticed that it also gave me the digital equivalent of lip filler and appeared to slim my nose — and that’s where it gets into icky territory.
Seeing yourself with pseudo cosmetic enhancements can be damaging to your self-esteem — in 2019, the term “Snapchat Dysmorphia” was coined to refer to the rise in people seeing plastic surgery to look better in selfies. The work-from-home era of the pandemic also contributed to a rise in plastic surgery, as people had nothing else to do but stare at themselves on Zoom all day. Whereas you used to have to go into a doctor’s office for a consultation (or know someone who’s really good at Photoshop) to see how you might look with a nose job or a little lip plump, now you can just hop onto TikTok for a preview. When you combine that with the fact that many plastic surgeons are advertising on TikTok, even purposely to teenagers, it’s no wonder more and more people are feeling insecure about what’s staring back at them on the screen.
On a broad scale, social media can cause psychological harm and do damage to users’ self-esteem. A 2023 study published by the American Psychological Association found that teens and young adults who cut their social media use in half saw “significant improvement” in how they felt about their weight and overall appearance in just a few weeks. Studies have linked Instagram, infamous for its appearance-altering filters, to depression, social anxiety, self-esteem issues, and other problems. A 2022 Italian study found a potential link between TikTok use and eating disorder prevalence, though the study’s authors noted that more research needed to be done.
So while the Teenage Look filter isn’t really a problem, it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which viewing your overly smoothed complexion could lead to some feelings of insecurity.