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Could FaceApp Have Told Me I Was Trans?

If FaceApp had been around when I was younger, might I have avoided going through the wrong puberty altogether?

Long before the word “selfie” was invented, people have been figuring out fun, time-wasting ways to fuck around with our outward appearance. Internet-age boredom may have fueled millennials to take this to new heights via platforms like Snapchat, but there are also our innate human insecurities to consider. Feeling adequate is a rarity; living in a capitalist culture that profits from making us feel flawed, it’s no wonder we feel the need to edit how the world sees us, whether that’s altering the words and feelings we post or the images of ourselves we share.

Arguably, few demographics are more concerned with outward appearances than transgender people. We’re often compelled to demonstrate how well we perform gender — whether because cisgender society demands we “pass,” or because we need to quiet the dysphoria that tells us we’re hideous. Taking selfies, as I’ve written before, can also be a form of self-love; when we’re feeling gender euphoria instead, we can preserve that moment forever, celebrate it, and even use it as an anchor.

So when FaceApp became the latest photo-editing fad a couple months back, I was greatly intrigued. FaceApp is a smartphone application that allows users to put pictures of themselves through filters with various semi-realistic effects: plug in a pic, and the app can make you look younger or older, enlarge your smile in various ways…and swap your gender. It’s not the first program to offer functionality in this vein — virtual makeup and hair apps have long been used to approximate these effects by closeted trans people — but FaceApp certainly seemed like one of the most advanced apps of its kind, and still does.

The Painful Privilege Of Passing

There were a number of problems with its neural network, of course. For one thing, FaceApp’s “hot” filter (which was quickly removed) drew criticism for lightening users’ skin and making their features noticeably more European. In order to touch up each photo, the app’s artificial intelligence draws on largely stereotypical traits that can be interpreted as reinforcing harmful preconceived notions; the “male” filter invariably adds a beard and the “female” filter overlays long hair, reifying binary ideas about gender.

Still, my curiosity was stoked. Problematic stereotypes aside, the fundamental conceit behind FaceApp was one that appealed to the science-fiction nerd in me. I like to think of my own transition as biohacking, where I take nature’s chaos into my own hands and remake myself as I feel I need and desire to be. But whereas I’m doing all this blind, technology could change all that. What if smarter AI programs could accurately predict the effects of aging, transitioning, and so on, without relying on templates? What if they could help us be smarter about how we go about our biohacking, which is totally going to become a Silicon Valley trend? (Sidebar: the first tech company to monetize transgender biohacking better be helmed by a Black trans woman. I’d do a lot for my ideal transition, but I’ll be damned if I’m paying some white tech bro a hundred grand for the privilege.)

So — dysphoria be damned — I decided to take FaceApp for a spin and see what all the fuss was about. The first thing I tried upon booting up the app was putting a current picture of myself through the “male” filter. I was fascinated with the possibilities. Would FaceApp be able to replicate my features as they once had been? As I quickly learned, the answer was a resounding “no” — I ended up looking like Edward Snowden, and the less said about that, the better.

Instead, I decided to reverse course. Downloading a selection of pre-transition photos of myself from Facebook, I began filtering each of them through the “old” filter, examining how I might have aged without hormonal intervention.

Some might say that there are worse fates than looking like Sir Ian McKellen. That may be true, but this shook me up; it was too close to what I’d imagined for myself before starting HRT, too reminiscent of the images in my brain that made me realize I couldn’t survive becoming an old man. Shaken, I reversed course and ran the same picture ran the same picture through the “female” filters instead, which turned out to be quite the emotional roller coaster:

Suddenly, staring back at me from my phone was the image of a girl who, but for testosterone, might have been me — a young woman from an alternate universe (with slightly amorphous-looking eyes). Part of me wanted to delete the app immediately, stricken by a glimpse at what I’d “lost.” But that sense of losing something I’d never really had — at peering into “my” own divergent history — made me certain I’d hit on something meaningful. Grabbing the last pre-HRT picture of me in existence, I fired it through the “old” and both “female” filters, and was rewarded with everything I’d ever wanted and feared in one collage:

Of course, the rational part of my brain knew that a substantial bit of trickery went into the creation of these photos. Apart from cleaning up my eyebrows and adjusting my jawline, the “female” filters also enlarged my eyes, making me appear — according to science — more typically desirable. And every “old” picture of me seemed to look a little different, so it’s not like any of them were stable predictors; each seemed to use a different senior citizen as a template.

But looking at all those photos together, one thought drowned out all the others: If I had seen this five years ago, I never would have waited to transition.

Testosterone Helped Me Feel Like Myself — Here’s Why I Stopped Taking It

Although lots of trans people have had a firm knowledge of their gender since they were toddlers (children begin to form and understand individual gender identities around age 2–3), many others take decades to figure our shit out. It wasn’t easy for me to put a finger on what I was feeling or why — I just knew that there was something peculiar going on. Just before my 25th birthday, having accumulated enough life experience and vocabulary, I recognized some of the signs of dysphoria: I couldn’t stand my body hair, I was depressed at my lack of breasts, and I had practically no self-esteem where my face was concerned. As I began my transition and started adjusting my hormones and presentation, the severity of those symptoms eventually began to lessen. But it was a long and sometimes extremely painful process — one that’s still ongoing — and although I know those struggles helped make me who I am today, I’ve often wished that I’d had something to grease the wheels.

This collage could have been that grease. I look at it and see such a clear and obvious path forward that any other decision seems ludicrous; of course I’d want to be one of those girls, and of course that would mean I should transition. If FaceApp had been around when I was younger, I mused, might I have avoided going through the wrong puberty altogether?

That perspective isn’t especially helpful for me, of course. What’s done is done, and I’ve been settling into my little slice of womanhood at my own pace. But what about modern trans kids? Might neural networks like FaceApp help Generation Z, in some way, understand and embrace their own ideal gender presentations? To be sure, this particular iteration of the technology isn’t all the way up to the task, given its tendency toward problematic stereotypes and its lack of nonbinary nuance. But none of that precludes future advances, which could propel us beyond FaceApp’s pure novelty use.

I’m just one voice, though. What were my peers thinking? I ran a short Twitter poll to get a sense of how a slice of the trans community responded to FaceApp’s potential:

Leaving aside the substantial chunk who had managed to let this particular fad pass them by, the results were about what I’d expected. The general consensus has been that FaceApp is a veritable factory of dysphoria; nothing like running a current picture of yourself through an idealized filter to feed those demons. But along with those reservations came optimism: this concept is one that can give some solace and direction (and admittedly, some distress as well) to trans people who are in the closet — to the outside world and/or themselves.

With that eye towards the future, I tried one more experiment. Queuing up a picture I’d taken in November to celebrate one full year on hormones, I ran it through the “old” filter, grimacing for fear I’d still see that old dude from my collage.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw instead: my mother’s face. Or at least, something like it that I might grow into.

And that’s what I hope neural networks still to be built will do for others: show them a possible future that affirms their deepest desires, and silently reassure them that it can be their reality. FaceApp was a fleeting trend because it didn’t offer this concept in a truly transformative way. But conceptually, it’s an early step toward what I hope will be a fascinating new frontier in photographic technology — one that could fundamentally redefine the self-love of selfies.