True Story: A Photoshopping Site Stole My Selfie Off Instagram And Gave Me A “Makeover” [UPDATE]

UPDATE, 5:40p.m.: @photoshop_fantasy has issued an apology on their Instagram page, although it appears all the same images are still up :

Hello lovely followers! We want to apologize for the inconveniences this account has caused with the unadvised photoshops. We deleted them and promise to not do these again without permission. What we did was wrong and we are sorry, and we certainly didn’t intend to hurt anyone. Thank you for your comprehension!

UPDATE, 5p.m.: @photoshop_fantasy has finally removed Carrie Nelson’s photo from their Instagram page. 

Last week, the Internet exploded in a debate about women and selfies. Are they feminist? Are they empowering? Are they a “cry for help”? For anyone not up-to-date, Amelia has written a solid summation of the dialogue thusfar.

I feel indifferent toward selfies. I have no problem when friends, acquaintances, or strangers post them, but I rarely share them myself. I’m not much of a photographer, and when I do take photos, I rarely position myself as the subject. But sometimes, I take selfies. Sometimes, when I think I look pretty or silly, or when I just want to express a feeling through my face, I take a selfie and share it online. It’s not part of my everyday life, but it’s an occasional fun indulgence for which I feel no guilt.

This past Sunday was one such day when I felt like taking a selfie. For the past few months, I have been struggling with depression, anxiety, and overcoming trauma, so it is often difficult for me to force myself out of bed, particularly on a cold weekend morning when my bed is so warm and comfy. Without thinking much about it, I snapped a selfie with my iPad. I took a photo of myself in bed, still disheveled from a restless night of sleep. More than anything, I was curious to know what I looked like in that particular moment. What I saw was a face that captured so much of what I have been feeling recently: exhaustion, sadness, and determination. Somehow, I managed to make all of those emotions visible and beautiful, in one snapshot of my face. Plus, the wisps of hair across my forehead added a casual charm that made me feel just a little bit sexy. I opened the photo in Instagram, added the Earlybird filter (perfect for early morning selfies), and captioned the photo “Good morning #bedselfie #sundaymorning #stillsleepy #nomakeup.” I posted the photo to Instagram, without sharing it on any other social networks, and went on with my day.

Later, I noticed that an account called photoshop_fantasy had started following me. My Instagram account is intentionally public because, as a former professor of mine once explained, the beauty of Instagram is in the communities built and discovered through hashtags. When I see that accounts I don’t recognize have followed me, I assume they’ve discovered me through the hashtags I’ve used, and I don’t give it much further thought. The username photoshop_fantasy was certainly eyebrow-raising, but I quickly forgot about it.

That is, until I looked in my feed later that night, and discovered that photoshop_fantasy had appropriated my photo for its own purposes, which was to give my selfie a complete makeover. In its doctored version, my freckles are gone, my hairy eyebrows are trimmed, my wispy hair is slightly more orderly, my eyes and lips are enhanced by makeup, and the corners of my mouth are slightly upturned to add the tiniest smile.

It’s not a bad look for someone. But that someone doesn’t look like me.

I rarely wear makeup, so the only photos that exist of my beautified face were taken at my Bat Mitzvah, my junior and senior proms, my wedding, and the midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” that I attended as a teenager. Still, I can assure you that, when I wear makeup, I do not look like the person in photoshop_fantasy’s creation. Naturally, I was angry that I was made to look like something other than myself, and I was angry that my photo was stolen and appropriated without permission. Most of all, though, I was angry because the doctored photo directly contradicted the entire purpose of my selfie. I took my selfie because I knew I didn’t look conventionally gorgeous in that moment. I took my selfie because I wanted the world to see me raw, flaws and all. I took my selfie because I can be beautiful even when I’m tired and depressed. I took my selfie because, beauty standards be damned, I liked my disheveled face on Sunday. That image empowered me far more than an unsolicited airbrushing ever could.

Though the account appears to be relatively new, I am not photoshop_fantasy’s only victim. Two other Photoshop makeover selfies caught my attention. One show a Black woman’s skin, eyes, and lips were lightened:

photoshop fantasy black woman

Another shows an Asian woman’s eyes were rounded and widened:

photoshop fantasy asian woman

I was particularly disturbed by those photos in light of a piece that writer ng?c loan tr?n published last week, which asserted that selfies can be empowering for people of color, along with queer and trans people, fat people, disabled people, and others on the margins of society. I was moved by the piece, and I thought of it today, when I saw the way that photoshop_fantasy  completely whitewashed these women of color. There is absolutely space for empowerment in selfies, but only when the pictures remain in the domain of their creators. Once they are appropriated, the true ugliness of conventional beauty standards shines through.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m naïve. I’m well aware that plagiarism and image appropriation are rampant on the Internet. My online writing has been plagiarized in the past, and I know that, with each photo I post on Facebook or Instagram (the latter of which is owned by Facebook), I am consenting to have my images in ads. (In fact, two particularly Internet-savvy friends of mine have taken Facebook’s Terms of Service to heart and are forbidding the sharing of photos from their upcoming wedding on social media, not wanting images from their special day to show up in ads.) Still, the knowledge that these problems exist does not make them ethical, nor should it make us complacent. I have asked photoshop_fantasy to take my airbrushed image down from their site; they have not yet reacted.

Push social networks to make their Terms of Service friendly for user-generated content. Call out fellow users when they appropriate and destroy your images without your permission. And keep taking selfies that make you feel empowered, goofy, or beautiful. I don’t believe that my selfie is necessarily a feminist act. I do, however, believe that it makes a statement about beauty in the face of adversity, and as much as photoshop_fantasy might try to destroy that spirit, I’ll never allow that to happen.

If you would like to contact the author of this post, send an email to [email protected] and it will be forwarded on.