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Why being air-brushed by Lensa AI made me anxious

The Lensa app’s avatars threaten to undo all the hard work we have done, collectively as women, to achieve a modicum of ease and comfort with our bodies and how we look

At least Deepika got an astronaut avatar (instagram.com/deepikapadukone)

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The photos, when they appear some 20 minutes after the Lensa AI algorithm started work, have a dreamlike, elusive quality to them. They both look like and don’t look like me. The app has reduced my age by about 20 years, smoothened out fine lines and puffy eyes, elongated my neck and given me a visible jawline, which nature has denied for over a decade. It has given my face an almost supernatural glow — and this is only the more ‘realistic’ of the 50 avatars the app has created using the dozen selfies I uploaded. The others, belonging to categories like ‘anime’, ‘kawaii’ and ‘fantasy’, are so beyond the realm of realism that they might as well be photos of a complete stranger.

Looking at the ‘almost but not quite’ photo, I think ‘what can I do to look like that?’. It is just recognizable enough that it generates a peculiar form of FOMO — maybe if I finally stuck to that diet, went for a walk every day, actually used the creams the dermatologist has prescribed, I could look somewhat close to this avatar which is me but not me?

Over the past few weeks, Lensa AI avatars have flooded our social media timelines. A lot has been written about how the app generates photos — especially of women — that are overtly sexualised; in the MIT Technology Review, Melissa Heikkilä writes: “But while Lensa generated realistic yet flattering avatars for (her male colleagues) — think astronauts, fierce warriors, and cool cover photos for electronic music albums— I got tons of nudes. Out of 100 avatars I generated, 16 were topless, and in another 14 it had put me in extremely skimpy clothes and overtly sexualized poses.”

In my opinion, the other, arguably even more dangerous, thing the app does is reinforce ideas of beauty that we have spent this past decade shedding. We have embraced body positivity, we are now used to seeing ads for workout clothes with models of all shapes and sizes, many recent TV shows have female characters — even leading ones! — that are not tall and skinny (Crazy Ex-Girlfiend with Rachel Bloom comes to mind) and artists, illustrators, podcasters have worked really, really hard to make us see that anglocentric ideas of beauty and health are a really virulent construct. 

Even as I scroll past my Lensa avatar on Instagram (of course I shared it with an ironic comment), I see a post by Australian comedian Celeste Barber who recreates fashion shoots at home, not shying away from displaying her real, un-toned mommy body in the ridiculous clothes and settings of the originals.

The Lensa app’s avatars feel like a giant <rude hand gesture> to all of this hard work we have done, collectively as women, to achieve a modicum of ease and comfort with our bodies and how we look, to find more satisfaction than flaws, to learn to love ourselves again. By showing us ‘magic avatars’ that can only be achieved through actual magic — though why should we try to, anyway? — it is increasing our anxieties over ageing, over imperfection and over our own failure to “be our best selves”.

The best thing I can say about the app is that it gave my avatars a few different and new hairstyles — and those I can probably adopt if my local salon guy cooperates. For that, and nothing else, thank you Lensa.

Also read: ChatGPT: As chatbot sophistication grows, AI debate intensifies

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