If you’ve been watching social media at all lately, you’ve no doubt seen the rampant use of FaceApp by people hoping to see what they will look like as they age. As you might imagine, this is not the typical request of those who visit Dr. Slack’s office! But that doesn’t mean social media isn’t an influence on what happens in the plastic surgeon’s office.

Snapchat or Selfie Dysmorphia 

We’ve addressed a psychological condition called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) here in the past. Individuals with BDD can suffer severe emotional distress over real and perceived problems with their appearance. When someone with realistic expectations undergoes plastic surgery, they are typically pleased with the outcome. Individuals with BDD, on the other hand, rarely find satisfaction after plastic surgery because they are conditioned to see only their flaws.

While BDD is not a new issue, it has been amplified by the rise of social media. In fact, a new term, Selfie dysmorphia or Snapchat dysmorphia, has been coined to describe the impact of social media on body image. Snapchat is the popular social media app that allows you to share pictures and short videos with your followers. One of its more popular features is its selection of filters that allows users to tweak their appearance toward some imagined ideal. Frequent Snapchat users become accustomed to their filtered appearance, and the “flaws” that are an inevitable part of reality become unacceptable. But this issue is not limited to Snapchat users – anyone who spends significant time scrutinizing their selfies is vulnerable. 

Dr. Slack explains it like this, “Part of the problem, as I see it, is the prevalence and ease of being able to take a picture of yourself. So much more to look at and scrutinize than 20 years ago. My dad was an avid photographer when I was growing up, and I remember him saying it usually took two rolls of film (64 shots) to get one or two good pictures of a person. Variables such as light and expression can conspire to make us all look worse than we really are.”

Is Selfie Dysmorphia Really Such a Big Deal?

It might seem harmless enough for people to play with selfies and add bunny ears and big eyes, but a recent survey of 7th grade girls shows that “girls who regularly shared self-images on social media, relative to those who did not, reported significantly higher overvaluation of shape and weight, body dissatisfaction, dietary restraint, and internalization of the thin ideal.” In addition, the same survey showed that a higher investment in manipulating images for social media correlated with body image issues and eating concerns, while excess media exposure did not. This is significant, as traditional media usually gets the blame for creating this unattainable ideal. Turns out it’s got nothing on social media.

Dr. Slack points out the need to understand that selfies aren’t reality. We don’t live in a ‘selfie’ world where we are viewed under the microscope of a milli-second of a shutter opening and closing. We live and are viewed in a world of constant motion and animation. No matter how good a surgery turns out you can make it look better or worse by altering camera angle, lighting or expression. We are living entities, not selfies!” 

That’s Great for Plastic Surgeons, Right?

From a financial standpoint, it might seem that selfie dysmorphia is a windfall for plastic surgeons. However, this is not how ethical plastic surgeons work. A good plastic surgeon is already skilled at recognizing BDD, and by extension the effects of social media on self-image, and how it can lead to unnecessary plastic surgery. Members of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) follow ethical guidelines to educate patients and guide them toward procedures that are best for them. In many cases this means no procedure. As an example, one-third of patients choosing rhinoplasty have body dysmorphic symptoms. This means a qualified plastic surgeon should have to say no somewhat regularly. Like other physicians, plastic surgeons took the Hippocratic oath and agreed to do no harm. Their goal should be the best outcome for their patient, and surgery doesn’t always yield that result.

Choose a Trusted Plastic Surgeon

For the best results from plastic surgery, the key is to find a skilled and ethical plastic surgeon you can communicate with comfortably. If you are at ease being honest about your desires, your surgeon can provide a realistic idea of whether they are possible or even desirable (what looks good on someone on social media might come off in a completely different way on you).

Be sure that your surgeon is a member of the ASPS so you know that he has agreed to certain ethical standards that will protect you as a patient. After your initial consultation, don’t rush your decision. It’s okay to mull over your options and make sure your health, finances, and mind are in the right place to take the next step. And it couldn’t hurt to take a break from selfies while you do that.