Amy Niu researches selfie-editing behavior as part of her PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 2019, she conducted a study to determine the effect of beauty filters on self-image for American and Chinese women. She took pictures of 325 college-aged women and, without telling them, applied a filter to some photos. She then surveyed the women to measure their emotions and self-esteem when they saw edited or unedited photos. Her results, which have not yet been published, found that Chinese women viewing edited photos felt better about themselves, while American women (87% of whom were white) felt about the same whether their photos were edited or not.
Niu believes that the results show there are huge differences between cultures when it comes to “beauty standards and how susceptible people are to those beauty filters.” She adds, “Technology companies are realizing it, and they are making different versions [of their filters] to tailor to the needs of different groups of people.”
This has some very obvious manifestations. Niu, a Chinese woman living in America, uses both TikTok and Douyin, the Chinese version (both are made by the same company, and share many of the same features, although not the same content.) The two apps both have “beautify” modes, but they are different: Chinese users are given more extreme smoothing and complexion lightening effects.
She says the differences don’t just reflect cultural beauty standards—they perpetuate them. White Americans tend to prefer filters that make their skin tanner, teeth whiter, and eyelashes longer, while Chinese women prefer filters that make their skin lighter.
Niu worries that the vast proliferation of filtered images is making beauty standards more uniform over time, especially for Chinese women. “In China, the beauty standard is more homogeneous,” she says, adding that the filters “erase lots of differences to our faces” and reinforce one particular look.
“It’s really bad”
Amira Adawe has observed the same dynamic in the way young girls of color use filters on social media. Adawe is the founder and executive director of Beautywell, a Minnesota-based nonprofit aimed at combating colorism and skin-lightening practices. The organization runs programs to educate young girls of color about online safety, healthy digital behaviors, and the dangers of physical skin lightening.