If you’ve scrolled through TikTok over the past week, you’ve probably seen a video that goes something like this: a woman looks amazed as she stares at her face in the camera. She touches her lips, her eyelids, her cheeks, as if questioning that the parts of her face could actually be real. “It’s not me at all,” one user said.
That’s because, in fact, the face they’re touching isn’t really their own. It’s the result of an unusually impressive new face filter called “Bold Glamour” that’s been sweeping the app, with swaths of users filming their reactions to how believably it alters their appearance, be it with fascination, delight, or outright horror. And press coverage of the filter has been truly wild, with headlines referring to the filter as “psychological warfare” and “terrifying.”
The reactions are warranted: Bold Glamour is one of the most impressive TikTok effects yet, and it appears to be a first look at how AI-powered tools could make face transformations harder to detect and even better at transforming how people look. But for now, TikTok is keeping the secret behind Bold Glamour quiet — the company has ignored multiple emails from The Verge asking for confirmation that Bold Glamour is using AI even though the company rolled out a new set of AI filter tools for effects creators last month.
In a February 22nd update to Effect House, its filter creation tools, TikTok announced that effects creators would now have access to a handful of generative AI effects that change a user’s facial features in real time. The new effects include an eyebrow eraser, a lip puckering effect, and a smiling effect, and creators with early access have already made filters using the new tools. In its creator guides, TikTok promises the generative effects match a user’s skin and are seamless.
These techniques differ from how most filter effects have been made until now. Traditional filters will usually take your 2D camera feed and map your face onto an exaggerated 3D model, says Luke Hurd, an augmented reality consultant who’s worked on Snapchat and Instagram filters. These effects can warp or glitch when you obstruct them because the 3D overlay has a hard time adhering to the layout of your face.
“This is a bit of a milestone, and an indicator of the weirdness of the post-reality world that lies ahead,” says Memo Akten, assistant professor of computational art and design at UC San Diego Visual Arts, who’s been highlighting videos of how accurately the effect changes faces.
Bold Glamour transforms users’ faces in ways we’ve come to expect from traditional “beauty” filters, but in a vastly more impressive way. It adds sharp contouring on the sides of the face and nose over a matte, even complexion. Eyebrows are lusher and symmetrical. Lips are plumper. There’s a sparkly, glazed-over look to the eyes — present but empty. Since gaining traction sometime last week, more than 9 million videos using the filter have been shared on TikTok already.
But despite the face filter tropes present in Bold Glamour, TikTok users have noticed that something about this effect is different. Unlike other filters that make it look like cartoon eyelashes or exaggerated eyeshadow has been painted onto a user’s face, the Bold Glamour modifications seem to move with the human face beneath them and even adjust when applied to masculine faces. And most notably, the filter barely distorts when a user puts their hand in front of themselves, a common occurrence with other face effects.
Hurd says Bold Glamour is likely making use of machine learning technologies — and in particular, Generative Adversarial Networks, or GANs — to pull off this impressive feat.
“Simply put, GANs pit two competing neural networks against each other in a fist-fight to the death,” Hurd says. In the case of Bold Glamour, it’s a competition between the camera’s view of your face and the style TikTok wants to morph you into. “Because it uses you, it then compares aspects of your face to a dataset of images that start to match against your cheeks, eyes, eyebrows, lips, and more.” Eventually, the technology combines the two sets of images into one. “If we do this fast enough, we can achieve a video framerate,” Hurd says. “And now we have a next-level effect like Bold Glamour!”
Hurd says there are other effects that work in a similar manner, such as TikTok’s “teenage look” effect and the gender-swapping effects on Snapchat. But the reason Bold Glamour has stood out more may be because it’s less exaggerated. “It’s just subtle enough to still be you and be convincing.”
Akten says the technology used by Bold Glamour isn’t groundbreaking. “These technologies have been developing rapidly for the last few years.” While the tech itself isn’t new, he believes that what makes Bold Glamour so impressive is the engineering to bring that technology to mobile devices in a very robust manner with minimal glitches.
“This has already been possible on desktop PCs using specialist software of course (e.g. deepfakes),” Akten says. “But that requires specialist software and some technical understanding. TikTok’s filter runs on a mobile device, accessible by billions of people, with no technical knowledge required, in realtime, and often (not always) looks totally believable.”
Though many TikTok users are impressed with the Bold Glamour filter, many are also concerned with how an even more seamless facial modification tool could impact users’ self-esteem and sense of self. Spencer Burnham, an AR creator who’s made popular effects on TikTok and Instagram, notes that including some level of retouching in filters — even if they aren’t explicitly makeup or “beauty” effects — is the norm, not the exception. Even joke filters often have some level of facial editing, like making skin look more even or blurring acne.
That means the uncanny feeling that comes with Bold Glamour is just the beginning. TikTok users will likely begin to see more and more filters using AI as new generative tools are opened up to more creators. Burnham worries that having a suite of powerful tools that alter a user’s appearance in real time could be a “breeding ground for body dysmorphia.”
“We’re getting to a new place where it’s not just augmenting reality, it’s replacing reality. It kind of scares me,” he says.
These sentiments have also been echoed across TikTok by those using the feature. Joanna Kenny, a former esthetician who now challenges unrealistic beauty standards with her #poresnotflaws movement, said in a video that the filter manages to appear natural while creating an effect that looks nothing like her. “I’ve done a lot of work to unlearn that I owe prettiness to anyone,” said Kenny. She said the filter made her feel “ugly” upon removing the effect.
There’s a growing body of evidence that these filters are harmful to mental health because of the unrealistic expectations they set for body image. A 2021 study into the social impacts of filters by City, University of London researchers found that 94 percent of female and nonbinary participants felt pressured to look a particular way, while 90 percent admitted to using filters or otherwise editing their images. Another study from 2017 by the Cognitive Research journal found that people only recognize when an image is manipulated around 60–70 percent of the time.
These results likely won’t be a surprise to the social media platforms that create and implement beauty filters. A report from The Wall Street Journal in 2021 revealed that Meta was, at the time of publishing, already aware that Instagram made 1 in 3 teen girls feel bad about their bodies and that teens using the app felt higher rates of anxiety and depression.
For now, much of the reaction to Bold Glamour has been to highlight just how wild the effect is, calling attention to its use and transformations. But as more platforms adopt and improve on AI-powered filters, it likely won’t be long before creators are using beautifying filters and other cosmetic editing effects that are indiscernible from reality. There’s a good chance they already are.