Bold Glamour—the name sounds like a coinage for an eyeshadow palette or a particularly flashy font. In actuality, it’s a TikTok filter, and despite the generic name, it may mark a watershed moment in the war for digital representation of our faces. In the future, will March 2023 be a dividing line between two distinct eras in history, Before B.G. and After B.G.?
The best way to understand Bold Glamour is to try it. If you download the filter on TikTok, as more than 18 million people have since it was introduced a few weeks ago, the app will take in your face and reflect back at you a glammed-up reinterpretation with stronger eyebrows, chiseled cheekbones, plumper lips, and several other heightened features. It’s you, but a supermodel, fembot, Facetuned version of you. (The filter takes a heavier hand on faces it reads as female.)
Bold Glamour is certainly proof that filters have come a long way since Snapchat’s dog-ear days, but it’s surprising just how realistic it is. On TikTok (and other apps that have filters, like Instagram and Snapchat), it’s not uncommon for a user to be able to change their hair color, layer on makeup, or even see themselves as a different gender via filters. But these filters have historically been limited in their capacity, and they’re often glitchy and goofy—you might use one to make yourself bald, but not in a way where the resulting image would be convincing. Bold Glamour is different in that it doesn’t immediately register as a filter. “It’s subtle enough to where it’s not cartoon-ifying you,” Luke Hurd, a designer who has created filters for platforms like Snapchat, told me.
Upon discovering it, users immediately began calling out Bold Glamour as both scary-good and scary-scary in its potential to further deteriorate our fraying relationships with our own faces, already undone by years of constant access to social feeds full of better-looking people who are having more fun than us. There’s been quite a bit of hand-wringing about it on social media and in the press in recent weeks, culminating in Dove, no stranger to capitalizing on body-image discourse for its own ends, launching a campaign in recent days asking people to just say no to Bold Glamour.
A few observers have questioned all the fuss, asking what’s so different about this filter—after all, we’ve been tweaking videos and photos to make ourselves look better for decades. “From a technical perspective, there’s not a lot new in the TikTok filter,” said Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies digital forensics. (Farid was on TikTok’s content advisory council for two years, but recently stepped down.)
But for many users, there is something unique about Bold Glamour. For one thing, where other filters falter in certain angles or when you hide parts of your face, Bold Glamour is able to keep up the mask. “The filter doesn’t even glitch when you swipe your hand across your face,” the woman who runs the semi-anonymous Instagram account @s0cialmediavsreality told me in a message, calling it “extremely toxic.” “This filter can and will encourage plastic surgery and low self-esteem,” she said. “It’s basically telling you that you don’t look the right way, this is the way you should look and this is what society finds beautiful.”
While many of us have noticed these sorts of issues in a general way, there’s been a lack of clear bad actors that users could point to and criticize—Photoshop, of course, can be used for both good and evil. One thing Bold Glamour does is step into that potential villain role. It’s a somewhat ideal target in that it was designed not by an independent TikTok user but by a team within TikTok. And though TikTok has been cagey about revealing much about Bold Glamour’s creation or confirming that the filter uses artificial intelligence, other outlets have heavily speculated that it does, and have attempted to explain some of the unsettling technology behind it.
Though Bold Glamour represents the latest high—or low, depending on your viewpoint—in filter technology, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that it won’t stop there. Part of the reason it’s so disturbing is because it’s only the beginning of a new world of filters coming down the pike, and it’s only a matter of time before they become tools for catfishing or other forms of digital trickery. So what’s the average person who sees the direction we’re headed—and doesn’t like it—to do?
Ideally, the smart move would be to learn to spot a filter in the wild, to train yourself to tell the difference between real people and real people that have been enhanced to resemble Bratz dolls. Though TikToks using the Bold Glamour filter are labeled that way in the app, the label is relatively easy to remove, and videos wouldn’t be hard to spread to other platforms.
According to Hurd, there are a few ways to tell if someone is using Bold Glamour. “You can see some of the flickeriness,” he said. “You can see a little bit of the kind of dithering on the hair and things like that if you know what to look for. As you get into different lights, or as you move around and you move the camera around, it can still lose track of where your face is and they can kind of flop in and out.” Herd was really searching with that answer, though—there’s honestly not much to scrutinize. “It’s pretty flawless,” he said. On some people, it looks more severe—and unrealistic—than others, of course, but that all depends on your face. I’ve also heard of it glitching when you stick out your tongue or squeeze your lips together, but those are pretty small problems, likely to be fixed as the technology improves.
Because of that, Farid said there’s really no point in trying to spot fake or altered images. “I can give you some answers right now and things to look for, but in three months, they won’t work anymore because the field is moving so unbelievably fast,” he offered.
Instead, Farid hopes the responsibility of identifying filters shifts to tech companies like TikTok. “I think the burden cannot be on the user,” he continued. “What that means is that every single video that’s created that’s A.I.-generated—or has potential downstream nefarious uses, from fraud to catfishing—has to be both imperceptibly and perceptively labeled.” He suggested platforms like TikTok include both visible and invisible watermarks on such images, and that the government institute the kind of strict regulation and oversight seen in areas like the financial sector.
Rules and safeguards for filters are a nice idea, but getting them now doesn’t seem particularly likely. Where does that leave us? After all, even the real world, and the possibility of encountering filter-less people within it, may not be totally safe from all this augmented madness. How far are we really from the reality depicted on Years and Years, a British miniseries from a few years ago that was set slightly in the future? On that show, there was a scene where a teenage character sits in her kitchen having an uncomfortable discussion with her parents. She then clicks a button and projects a filter onto herself right there, in real life. It seems implausible, but so did something like Bold Glamour.
If we can’t count on being able to control technology or discern real from fake, those of us who want to preserve our mental health will still have to figure out a way to muddle through. Does that mean assuming everything we see online might be fake? Maybe, or maybe not—Photoshopped ads and magazine covers are obviously retouched, and they still manage to fool us constantly. The question isn’t so much “Is that person’s face real or fake?” then, but how we’ll reckon with the realization that it’s likely both. Should we just accept that everyone will have two faces, their real one and the one they post online? That may ultimately be easier than agonizing about it, but of course, that’s up to you.
On Star Trek, the crew’s mission was to boldly go where no man had gone before. Our mission in the filtered future is less clear, but at least we know we know we’ll be going there boldly—and glamorously.