You Can Now Airbrush Your Ex from Old Photos – Here’s Why You Shouldn’t

Itry to look at the photo objectively, as if seeing it for the first time. There’s just me in the foreground: windswept, smiling with all my teeth, radiantly happy behind a pair of oversized sunglasses. Behind me lies a beach scene where sand meets water meets sky. People frolic in the waves; a lone gull flies overhead in an expanse of palest blue. If you linger too long, you might wonder about the angle of my body – not straight on to the camera but half-turned, as if leaning towards something. You might ask about the blurry whisper of white in the bottom right-hand corner, as if a ghost had just stepped out of frame. Which, as it happens, isn’t so far from the truth.

When this photo was originally taken, there was another protagonist: my ex-boyfriend. Both of us posed for the selfie in that version, with my arm wrapped around his shoulders, his wide grin matching mine. I can’t remember where it was taken – presumably somewhere in the UK, based on my decision to wear a jumper – but I do know, just by looking at it, that we were very, very happy then. It is a perfect moment frozen in time, imbued with so much love and joy and potential that it’s hard to look directly at it knowing what came later: the abrupt, unexpected end; the dissolving of forever in one brief, tear-stained conversation on the sofa.

Still, looking at the altered version doesn’t feel any easier. First of all, it’s just plain spooky. Second of all, it provokes a swooping drop in my gut akin to that feeling you get on a rollercoaster when you plummet straight down, the loss of gravity leaving you untethered and vaguely nauseous.

I created this “new and improved”, alternative-universe snap courtesy of “Ex-Terminator”, a collab between the dating site OkCupid and the photo editing software Photoroom. Touted as “the world’s first AI-driven ex-eraser tool”, it’s free and easy to use – simply upload a photo of you and your ex, click and drag the erase cursor over your former beloved, and watch as they magically disappear (art imitating life, in this case).

The tool was developed in response to research from OkCupid that found that 54 per cent of Gen Z and 50 per cent of millennial singles have a photo of themselves that they’d like to erase an ex from. Some 41 per cent of the 185,000 respondents said they were motivated to remove their ex from a photo in order to get over a breakup.

“Whether it’s to heal and move on or to salvage a good photo, millions of folks want to erase their exes from old pictures,” says Lauren Sudworth, Photoroom’s head of brand. Michael Kaye, OkCupid’s director of communications, highlights the benefits of salvaging a photo for use on a dating app: “When it comes to getting their dating app profile summer-ready, we’re teaming with Photoroom to make sure their exes aren’t getting in the way of any good photos.” Yikes.

While Black Mirror metaphors are inevitable, it’s perhaps more evocative of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the seminal 2004 Michel Gondry film starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, which explores a world in which humans can pay for a procedure to erase all their memories of someone. The film beautifully examines the complexities entailed in seeking to “delete” an ex – including the question of whether we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes if we don’t remember them, and the idea that, however much someone hurts us, there are swathes of good memories that it would be nothing short of tragic to lose.

Removing an ex from a picture isn’t removing your memory of them, of course. But there is something in that process – and, similarly, in throwing away all your mementos of someone – that feels deeply symbolic. As if trying to pretend they never existed. As if trying to pretend that deleting their face will delete the pain.

“All relationships are part of our journey and learning curve that develop us,” says Jo Coker, a counselling psychologist and director of therapy and training standards for COSRT. While she says that getting rid of pictures, messages and love letters can be helpful “if you are getting stuck in revisiting them and dwelling on the relationship without being able to move forward”, she highlights that “not all our past relationships are full of bad memories even if they end. It is good to be able to take the positives of the time spent together – so do not rush to destroy.”

There are wildly different approaches to dealing with the physical evidence of a relationship after a breakup. I know some who take the full scorched-earth approach, eradicating every last scrap of proof of love and rewriting their past without their erstwhile partner. One friend experienced an unexpected negative consequence of this strategy recently, upon getting back together with her former flame following a seven-month hiatus. Before the reconciliation, still grief-stricken, she’d asked her sister to delete all of his messages, as well as every picture of him on her phone. “I’ll never get them back now,” she said sadly. “That part of our relationship is gone forever.”

This is, conversely, why many of us opt for erasure – because hanging on to souvenirs becomes a symptom of hanging on to hope that someone might have a change of heart and rekindle the relationship. I desperately kept hold of a homemade birthday card from an ex in my early twenties “just in case” he realised he couldn’t live without me. I kept thinking how glad I’d be that I hadn’t chucked it when we inevitably reunited and spent the next 50 years happily married. Suffice to say that never happened – I remember the release and relief the day I finally let it fall into the bin, like a much-lower-stakes version of Frodo watching the One Ring tumble into the fires of Mount Doom.

But since then, I’ve not sought to destroy those physical manifestations of past love. The various notes and cards sit in a memory box. The WhatsApps are archived but still exist. The photos remain on my phone. Coker agrees that taking your time weighing up what to do can be the best approach: “I would say do not rush to decide what you are going to do with the mementos of past relationships. Perhaps put the physical reminders in a box and leave revisiting them until time has passed, and then decide what to keep or not.”

Her advice in general is to avoid rushing yourself when it comes to moving on after a breakup. “Take time to heal and build your inner strength and confidence in yourself,” she adds. “Use the space as a time for reflection, self-growth and development. Ending a relationship can be painful, and you need to acknowledge that and be kind to yourself.”

I try running more photos through the Ex-Terminator tool, just to see what it feels like. Us at a gig becomes me next to a blank space; the double-act shot at a festival is transformed into a solo selfie. Smiling and alone, I stand by a black hole of nothing, a him-shaped abyss. I use a picture with a less recent ex to see if it still feels so odd and empty – but that one turns out even worse, the orange beanie he was wearing that day in the Highlands stubbornly refusing elimination no matter how many times I drag the tool over it. The end result is eerie. It’s like the lingering memory of him is fighting back; like he really is a ghost, one more intent on haunting me the more I try to scrub him out.

In fact, the whole experience, rather than feeling cathartic, triggers a sense of strangeness. Unsettled is the best description I have for it. Just because those men no longer physically exist in those photos, they exist in my memories. I can’t look at that beach shot and forget who I was with, forget the way they made me feel, forget the dizzying highs of loving someone that all-consumingly. And, the more time that passes, the less I want to.

Life is a patchwork of pleasure and pain, delight and disappointment; none of it makes sense in isolation. I wouldn’t be the me I am now without every single one of the relationships – and heartbreaks – that shaped me. Those experiences both sharpened and softened the person I became, like a Polaroid developing in front of your eyes (to stay with the photography metaphor), the outlines getting clearer and colours deeper as you watch.

And so I decide I will delete some photos – namely, the creepy, serial-killer versions without my exes. The originals can stay, to be brought out occasionally and cried over and marvelled at before they’re returned to cold storage. Forgiven, yes – but not forgotten.

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