Yesterday, something about the Lil Icey Eyes filter was suddenly different. Why? Photograph: Screengrab
Lil Icey Eyes gave users cold stares and thick eyelashes – and also seemed to persuasively slim noses and enlarge lips.
Some online fads are “blink and you miss ‘em”, but I couldn’t help noticing the viral ascent of Lil Icey Eyes – an augmented reality face filter that became central to a popular TikTok and Instagram trend this week.
It seemed like every time I opened the app over the last 72 hours I encountered a flawless face with the cold stare of a Siberian husky – albeit one wearing fairly intense false eyelashes. The faces would pout and pose for a second, and then the filter would disappear, leaving the user howling with laughter over the contrast between their glamorous virtual visage and their real self.
But yesterday, something about the Lil Icey Eyes filter was suddenly different. Why?
Originally popularized by Snapchat, most of us first encountered face filters (or “selfie lenses”) as goofy effects and animations layered over our digital image to make us look like we were barfing rainbows or sticking our long puppy dog tongues out at our front-facing cameras.
Two years ago, Snapchat began allowing users to create their own filters; Instagram followed suite last August. As a result of these platform expansions, creativity is flourishing; some filters double as mini-games, or artistic creations that turn you into an iridescent cyborg queen. The vast majority of those making these filters do it for free.
Many other creators, including Lil Icey Eyes’ creator, Paige Piskin, who revealed over a livestream that she gained 150,000 Instagram followers in one day when she went TikTok viral this week, focus on filters that essentially make you look “cuter” – giving the effect of freckles or makeup, or adding flowers and butterflies into the frame.
With so many filters to choose from, why did Lil Icey Eyes take off so dramatically? It’s hard to say exactly, but what’s clear is TikTok users, 41% of whom are between the ages of 16 and 24, thought the filter made them look great – and by the reductive standards of “Instagram face” beauty, it did.
In addition to a Night King gaze, the filter seemed to persuasively slim noses and enlarge lips – elements which likely contributed to its (semi) demise.
Early yesterday morning Piskin posted a lengthy Instagram caption explaining the filter had to be altered in accordance with Instagram policy. As of last October, the platform has banned filters that provide a “plastic surgery” effect due to research suggesting such visuals negatively impact the wellbeing of users – especially teens. According to a June 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, using any type of face filter is linked with increased consideration of plastic surgery.
Piskin, for her part, wrote in her caption that she believes people gravitate to face-warping filters not because we really want to look different, but simply because they’re fun. “And very likely [because filters are] a way to compensate for having a camera way to close to our faces,” [sic] she writes. Researchers have found that our faces tend to appear distorted in selfies.
Instagram’s effort to draw the line on digital augmentation at face-warping filters may be well intentioned, yet perhaps arbitrary. After all, almost all filters involve baseline digital beautification. Filters that give you bunny ears or rainbow hair also usually give you smooth skin, whiten teeth, and intensify eyes – that’s plenty to make one feel inadequate. That’s not even taking into account the ubiquity of images users post after erasing their every little flaw on apps such as Facetune.
For all its viral popularity, Piskin’s creation was just an icy lil’ drop in an ocean of digitally mediated dysmorphia. If Instagram is serious about changing the way its platform makes users feel, they’ll have to look at the bigger picture.