Chinese girls were taking selfies way before the West had even heard of them – and probably even before the word ‘selfie’ had been invented in English.And so, while the world embraces the selfie revolution – young Chinese women are again one step ahead, editing their pictures in a way the rest of us can only imagine.We’re not talking about adding a few flattering filters on Instagram here. The augmentation of facial features – using phone apps such as Meitu Xiu Xiu – is becoming so widespread and powerful in China that it’s become fashionable to say online that they work better than plastic surgery.
These hugely successful, homegrown photo editing apps specifically target two distinct psychologies ofChinese women: the unabashed posting of selfies (often a whole series of close-up pictures with different expressions) and the desire to look whiter than they really are.Photo enhancements are nothing new, of course and Photoshop has been readily available for a long time. But simple-to-use photo-editing apps, which create the same effect as Photoshop on your phone, are a relatively new invention.
In China at least, the phenomenon has become an integral part of the online culture. Most of my female friends edit their faces before posting pictures on social media – it’s a must-do, ingrained step.
This is more than a digital ‘touch up’ – the likes of which are growing more popular in the Western world, too. Such apps play to Chinese women’s fantasies of achieving a more refined––or more ‘Westernised’––aesthetic that specifically lies in having a more streamlined facial contour, whiter skin and bigger eyes.
Meitu Xiu Xiu, the leading app of its kind in the Chinese market, is phenomenally successful, According to its official website, Meitu has over 500 million users and is installed on over 900 million mobile devices worldwide.The ‘refine and whiten’ button is by far the most popular function, since having white skin in itself is a standard of beauty in China.
Famous Chinese women are driving the trend. The best-known actress in China, Fan Bingbing, has publicly declared Meitu her favourite app and often posts photos of her snow-white skin.
In recent weeks, a $1,000 'selfie camera' has also been flying off the shelves, as it make users look like they've had plastic surgery. The Casio's official name is Exilim TR, but it’s mostly known as ”zipai shenqi” in China, which means ”Godly tool for selfies.”
Indeed, the hot plastic surgery trend in China and Korea in recent years has been ‘jawline thinning’ – where women try to reduce their ‘bigger faces’ to resemble those of Western women. This ‘shaving’ involves cutting into the jaw and trimming off some of the bone. The result is a more sculpted face and a more triangular chin that resembles the supposed “pixie” look of Western faces.
But if you can’t afford surgery, these new apps let you ‘suck in’ your face with the subtle slide of a finger.“Brightening my skin and making my face thinner is normally all I do on Meitu”, says my attractive friend Leah Zhang. Although she does admit to having gone much further in modifying her features - and having toned it down after one boyfriend told her that her pictures looked nothing like her.
I’ve experienced the opposite problem. All this extreme digital photo editing is leading to unrealistic expectations as to what Chinese women actually look like in real life.
A guy I met on a dating app told me he was shocked when he first saw me as I was “much better looking” than my photos suggested. “You look really dark in your photos”, he said, “and your face looks round.”
Another charmer asked me why I used such “life like photos” rather than edited pictures.
“Nowadays, men are so used to seeing faces of girls on social media where the skin has been whitened, features softened and jaws thinned down, so that anything unfiltered looks strangely under par,” 27-year-old graphic designer Xiaolin told me.
My 24-year-old friend Zhao Siyuan tells me that plenty of her male friends have been deceived in online dating with a little help from Meitu. A few were apparently so appalled by the difference in their date's face that they “just directly turned around and walked away”.A couple of months ago I too gave into the pressure downloaded Meitu Xiuxiu, partly because I was curious. Now I’m addicted - because it's so easy to change the way you look, and because, no matter where you are from, a bit of “brightening” is never a bad thing.
I can just tap to erase blemishes on my face – meaning my lazy morning routine doesn’t impact my online persona. My jawline, as much as I don’t want to admit it, is quickly streamlined with a quick ‘sucking’. It’s a lot of fun.
Photoshopping your face with an app is just that – fun - and isn’t harmful in most cases.
But, in China, it’s increasingly redefining standards of beauty. Chinese women are moving away from their natural selves and I can't help but feel this 'fun' is rapidly turning into an even greater pressure to conform, and look a certain way.
The gap between reality and our online lives is widening as we sit on our phones playing plastic surgeon - and it can't be long before Western women join in.