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Why We’re All So Turned On by Our Gender-Swapped Snapchat Filters

A psychologist’s perspective on those super-viral videos

The dog Snapchat filter makes me look like a hoe, not a puppy. The big mouth filter is supposed to be funny and cute, but I look like I’m about to ask to speak to the manager. The devil filter makes me look not quite evil, but like I wanna be Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (and let’s be real, I do). Point is, as cute as those Snapchat filters may be, the signifier doesn’t often align with what’s signified.

A new set of filters has disrupted this trend, though: the gender swap. Snapchat’s “man” and “woman” filters are frighteningly effective, and they went frighteningly viral — causing the Instagram converts I know to re-download the app. Usually Snapchat makes me look cartoonishly adorable. Instead, the masculine filter had me ready to risk it all for the scruffy, sculptural Adonis I became.

Guys seem to be having the same reaction to their gender swap — though maybe a bit more extreme. When the filter was released, my social feeds were clogged with dudes talking about how hot they were with long hair and a feminized face. One dude even told Reddit about how he got caught jacking off to his. Others questioned what their attraction means. “Fellas, is it gay to jerk off to yourself with that new Snapchat filter?” a user named u/YaBoiAwesomeGuy joked. “If you like it then I cannot judge,” the top commenter replied. (I DM-ed YaBoiAwesomeGuy, who admitted he doesn’t actually know of anyone masturbating to the photos — but his friends all say they’re attracted to them.)

So what is it about the gender-flip filter we find so hot, anyway?

According to Pamela Rutledge of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California, part of our attraction to the filter stems from the fact that it was designed to mimic norms of beauty. “It appears that the gender-swap filter makes features more symmetrical, smoothes out imperfections and uses current norms of fashion,” she explains. “For example, it gave me an L.A. hipster three-day [beard] growth.”

So the filter isn’t necessarily an exact portrayal of a differently gendered self. It’s an idealized version of it. It also makes our friends look hotter, which in turn provokes a strange cocktail of emotions. Moreover, we’re simply wired to be attracted to the people we see frequently. “Frequency increases likability,” says Rutledge. “Humans are more likely to be attracted to things we know, so filters of our friends would also have the increased appeal of recognition.”

Still, a genuine erotic attraction to the filtered photos could suggest autosexuality or autoeroticism, defined as a romantic or sexual attraction to oneself without the participation of another person. Is that what’s going on here? I don’t think so. As Leon Seltzer writes in Psychology Today, “Viewed literally, autoerotic individuals are attracted primarily — sometimes exclusively — to their own bodies. But appreciated more generally, autoeroticism involves a whole range of sexual behaviors and attitudes. … Obviously, the more ‘pure’ the autoerotic, the less they’d require sexual fantasies of another to become physically turned on.” But it’s not really that we’re attracted to ourselves, per se. It’s more like there’s a hot person who sorta looks like us, and we can control them.

For the trans community, the experience of seeing Snapchat’s idealized feminine or masculine version of you can be more profound. Some trans people report feelings of validation in their gender identity. “I’m [male-to-female], and honestly it made me cry a little?? I hope it’s at least vaguely accurate cause I high-key look hot??” says one Reddit user. “It makes me look how I’ve always wanted to look,” says another. Some trans people, however, have criticized the filters for making light of transitioning or promoting an unrealistic standard of beauty that could cause further dysphoria. 

“The social ramifications of this are potentially problematic depending on perception,” says Rutledge. “It could be seen as a way of exploration and regarding gender as more fluid. It might also be seen as not considering the psychological struggles of people who have dealt with trans identities in a society that doesn’t always embrace them or understand their journey. Because the realities of the misunderstandings and lack of acceptance the trans community still faces makes the playful nature of a gender-swapping filter feel insensitive.”

Beyond adding or removing a little scruff, the filters reshape the entire face to fit certain gendered norms. For example, the manly filter widens my jaw, while the feminine filter actually chisels it thinner, removing my beloved cleft chin. The manly filter makes my eyes appear brooding and dark, like I stayed awake all night welding an erotic sculpture. The feminine filter makes me look like a kindergarten teacher who, by some miracle, gets a clean 10 hours of sleep every night and just got a fresh set of eyelash extensions.

So what do these filters tell us about our relationship with technology and beauty? Snapchat filters have already inspired some to get plastic surgery based on the subtle changes they offer, like thinning the nose or brightening the eyes. But according to Dr. Miami, a Snapchat-famous plastic surgeon, these previous filters have caused no greater dysmorphia than Photoshop, which has been morphing bodies for years.

Snapchat dysmorphia is just the new version of Photoshop dysmorphia, which has been happening ever since Photoshop was invented,” Dr. Miami told MEL in 2018. “Most of my patients at least don’t bring in filtered photos of themselves as reference for the kind of look they want, but when they do, it often has to do with narrowing their nose in order to make their eyes look bigger. Most of the filters available on Snapchat and Instagram make your eyes look larger, which is a conventional beauty standard associated with youth.”

While the new gendered filters are a bit more drastic, they ultimately utilize the same conventional beauty standards we’re accustomed to idolizing. Essentially, Snapchat isn’t reshaping our notions of beauty, but it is reinforcing them — a mirror, but an arbiter too.

More than anything, the filters seem to be a way to play with our look and experiment with how we present ourselves. Per Rutledge, this could eventually change paradigms. “One of the ways people learn is by watching others and evaluating the outcome,” she says. “Another is to experiment. This can be nuanced or more overt expressions, fleeting or more permanent.”

I think it’s great if seeing yourself with a different gender expression proves eye-opening. As for me, though, I’ll be sticking to the dog filter.