Every few months, a big social media site comes out with a new beauty filter that can be adjusted for either gender. The “Bearded Cutie” lens on TikTok gives you thick eyebrows and scruffy facial hair, while the “My Twin” lens on Snapchat gives you porcelain skin and a hint of glam makeup to make you look more like a woman. Many people just use these filters for fun and forget about them as soon as they stop being popular. But some people can’t stop going back to the apps and looking at their gender-bent reflection. They feel like something has suddenly become clear.
Oliver Haimson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies transgender identity and experiences online, says that for trans, gender-nonconforming, or gender-curious people, filters can be a way to play with gender expression without the time, skill, hormones, and luck it takes to put on makeup or grow facial hair. He talks about how filters are an important and often-used tool for exploring identity.
Some trans people say that filters helped them finally “crack their egg,” which is a rite of passage in the trans community for when someone admits to themselves that their gender identity is different from what they were assigned at birth. “The Snapchat girl filter was the last straw that made me let go of a decade of repression,” says Josie, a trans woman from Cincinnati in her early 30s. “I saw something in a mirror that looked more like me than anything else, and I couldn’t turn around.”
Filters can also give trans people a much-needed dose of gender euphoria, which is the rush of happiness they feel when their appearance matches their gender identity. Some people use filters to help them map out possible physical changes. Etta Lanum, 32, from the Seattle area, says, “The filters on FaceApp showed me how little I needed to change my face to look more feminine.” “It showed me that just changing my eyebrows and beard could get me where I needed to be.”
There are also bad things about using these filters. Some trans people think that the technology sets them up for disappointment and dysphoria because it shows “results” that are physically impossible to achieve, even with plastic surgery, artistic makeup, or hormone therapy. But since more and more of our lives are happening online, who’s to say that the filtered version of you isn’t the “real” you?