I’m not entirely sure why, but Meitu – a Chinese produced image editing/selfie app – has been doing the rounds on twitter and the rest of social media recently. I say ‘I’m not entirely sure why’ because the app is by no means new; I’ve had various versions on my phone over the past couple of years, as well as competitor apps. It’s a fairly standard fixture in some of the circles I’m in.
The reactions to it have been… interesting, to say the least. The newest feature offers a ‘drawn effect’ to a selfie, so you basically look like you’re an anime/manga/manhwa character rather than the usual meitu tools, and comments/captions have been along the lines of ‘so cute/so kawaii’ ‘it doesn’t look like me’ ‘best selfie version’ etc. It’s varied. To clarify, Meitu is not an ‘anime yourself’ app, it’s an app that is used to ‘perfect’ selfies with filters etc that specifically cater to Chinese beauty standards. It has since branched out into more ‘makeup application’ and airbrushing for a global consumer, but the root marketplace is Chinese.
I saw an interesting comment by a twitter account I follow that raises awareness of issues affecting the East and Southeast Asian communities (@ESEAsianbeauty) suggesting that instead of fawning over the new fad/exotifying/othering elements of different cultures, that we use the opportunity to talk about the beauty standards and how they differ country to country.
So. I ‘meitu’d’ myself with the new feature (also with the auto feature on the usual editing side of things) and am here to talk about different beauty standards and the issues I have with an awful lot of videos on Youtube or blog posts testing/reviewing products that are from China, Japan or Korea.
But first, I shall disclaim a few things.
disclaimer 1: I am not Asian. I am as white as it gets, off the shelf mayo, I go a fetching shade of ‘hideously burnt’ the minute the sun comes out. I have, however, studied various aspects of East Asia, I have read papers and scrutinised their viewpoints, I have a degree in East Asian Studies, and lived in the region. I am not Asian in the slightest, but I feel that I have an understanding of the persistent white colonialist mindset that somehow still remains in this day and age, even though I have not lived under its oppression. Also, I wrote my dissertation on the motivations of young South Koreans to undergo aesthetic transformative (plastic) surgery, so I know a thing or two about beauty standards in the region. It’s a topic that I am continuously researching. I also know a thing or two about beauty standards in a White Western world, and it’s interesting to compare the two.
disclaimer 2: if you are Asian, and don’t feel offended by someone calling anything from your culture ‘weird, Asian’, or think this is an incredible reach, then that is totally cool beans.
disclaimer 3: the main focus of my research is South Korea, I feel with the rise/pervasiveness/reach of Kpop and K-dramas that this can be applied more so to China than Japan – as Chinese citizens are one of the largest sectors contributing to South Korea’s medical tourism industry. Feel free to correct me if you think certain aspects can’t be extrapolated or applied in that way though!
Let’s start with Meitu and cover what the app did to my face.
For context, I have a small face/head, the circumference taken from my temples is about 53cm – I had to get the smallest size available for graduation caps, and when the fedora trend really started to kick off I had trouble finding anything small enough to fit. I have slight squaring of my jaw, basically a shallow ‘v’ shape is formed from the tip of my chin to the edge of each side. My chin itself isn’t pointy, it’s kind of flat, I have fairly defined cheekbones, and my face isn’t symmetrical. This might sound a bit trite to lay out, but it’ll become apparent why I have later in the post.
Meitu’s ‘drawn’ style function offers 7 different options. I tried 6 for consistency/posterity (as the 7th is specifically to do with Chinese/lunar new year), and it was interesting to see the variation in alterations with each style.
1 & 2 are the ones I’d consider less drastic in alteration, the 3rd is a middle ground
All 6 options I tried shaved my jawline to be less square, so if the selfie were more ‘head on’ then I’d have a v-shaped jawline. The first two were far less ‘drastic’, so look more natural and ‘me’ to myself. All 6 options also altered my eyes, not in length, but in the distance between my lower and upper lids to make them seem wider, two of the versions shaved my cheekbones down a little too. Basically, all 6 made my already small head/face appear smaller and more delicate. It was interesting to see that the one real insecurity I have with my face they didn’t touch… which is my nose. But the main aim was to make the face smaller.
Because having a smaller face, in South Korea and China, at least, is seen as more beautiful.
Legitimately, there is a saying in Korean: 그녀는 얼굴이 주먹만한다 – her face is as small as a fist. It’s seen as a positive in South Korea (my Korean teacher at Yonsei used to use me for all the examples with this, and had to explain at the start that it was a really positive thing in Asia to have a small head or face), and I think the sentiment is shared in China and Japan also, as in purikura booths (the photo booths in Japan) there is an option to decrease the size of your face, and a lot of the Chinese beauty tool apps seem to have this function.
Moving away from the Meitu drawn function, and into the actual Meitu app itself, I applied the ‘auto’ function to to different selfies for comparison. The results seemed to be more skin smoothing/whitening and altering the brightness and contrast of the image rather than any heavy warping, but my jaw was shaved again. My eyes weren’t really touched, but this function is really more to ‘enhance’ unless you go into the editing tools and play around yourself.
Meitu is, in itself, a pretty harmless app. But as I said earlier, it’s not an ‘anime yourself’ tool, it’s applying East Asian, more specifically Chinese, beauty standards to your face.
So what are these beauty standards, and how do they differ from the West?
Well, we’ve already discussed the ‘size of the head / face’, and I’m not really sure on the specifics of why a small head or face is more desirable, but from my experience and observations, it makes you look more delicate. It could also be to do with finding beauty in rarity, considering the bone structure of East Asians specifically can produce wider faces, and therefore those with smaller faces are more rare, thus more beautiful. It is a wormhole, but there are plenty of East Asian celebrities that are celebrated for the beauty with both types of facial structure. The desire to have a slimmer face does appear to be the strongest in South Korea, and then China, at the moment.
In tandem with this, eye size is another thing that is commonly ‘contested’ in East Asia, as well as reported on (especially overseas), and it’s usually in articles surrounding double eyelid surgery and the sales of products that create the appearance of a double eyelid. Having larger eyes is often seen as more beautiful – again I think this plays aesthetically to making the face look smaller – although recently the pride in monolids has gained traction to the point that a lot of the trending models look ‘distinctly Korean’. I’m not going to go into the issues of double eyelid surgery, but it is a very popular procedure, and I’ve had friends tell me the reasons range from ‘they just wanted to look more ‘awake” to ‘it’ll help me get a better job in the future’.
I think also with the speed and size of the growth of the Korean cosmetics industry, instagram, other social networking sites, youtube, and the beauty industry as a whole, a double eyelid can give you more room to work with in the way of eye makeup, but as procedures are a very individual thing, motives change from person to person. It’s not anyone’s job to pin a collective cause to put people in a box. There area multitude of products available to help create a double eyelid – I’ve heard the best is a Japanese brand eyelid glue.
Pale skin is another pretty prominent beauty ideal. If you have an interest in Korean cosmetics, you may have come across the words ‘lightening’ or ‘whitening’ on certain skincare products. There are a lot of items that contain whitening agents across the collective East Asian beauty sphere as a whole, as pale skin is seen as one of the ‘ultimate’ beauty goals.
The reason? Historically, the nobles, upper class, kings and queens of East Asia, basically never went outside. Hardly stepping foot outside the home, or being under shades when doing so, meant that their skin remained very pale. In contrast, manual laborers, farmers, and many of the lower classes were outside all day every day, in the sunshine, and were far more tan. You could instantly tell what class someone was from by the colour of their skin, and that’s pretty much ingrained into East Asian beauty standards to date. There issues within communities of derogatory comments towards darker skinned peers and the like, it has improved somewhat though.
Slenderness is also another massive standard in the East Asian beauty ideal. Generally (although this is changing now due to both ‘improvement’ and general alterations in diet), East Asian body types are smaller than that of a Western equivalent. I say this is changing due to improvement and alterations in diet, as for a lot of the 20th century, pretty horrific occurrences in the region meant that food was scarce, diets were poor, and malnutrition was rampant. When that happens, people don’t grow very tall, very wide, or very much. Genetics also plays a part in body structure, the BMI index for what is considered underweight, normal, and obese is slightly lower than that in the West, weight-related illnesses start at a lower weight than in the West, etc. If you’ve ever wondered as to why Asian sizing is so drastically different in some cases to Western sizing, the answer is that they are just generally smaller.
Which perpetuates the desire to be skinny.
In South Korea this is particularly rampant (though there has been a recent shift from waspishly tiny to gym-fit, which is nice, although I’m yet to see if this is as widespread across the country as it is on instagram). For Japan, I do have a couple of popteen! issues that have the diet ads at the back with seriously skinny girls, but overall the standard seems to be more ‘normal’, and China I’m less well versed on but I’d imagine it’s a similar vein to South Korea.
I noticed in Seoul, that there were very few female Korean celebrities that were large, and if they were they were usually ‘comediennes’.
In the world of makeup, beauty ideals seem to be more fresh-faced, dewy, the focus is on good skin and a luminous complexion. Makeup is more natural looking, but there is a pressure to look put together and professional at all times. If you haven’t got your usual face on, chances are you’ll be repeatedly ask if something tragic happened in your personal life, if you’re ok, or ill.
Overall, I’d say the beauty standards in Japan are often seen as less extreme than those in China, and especially South Korea. They have interesting trends (the snaggle-tooth surgery still makes me wince), but you’re far less likely to see legions of plastic surgery clinics as you would in Korea.
As a white Caucasian person, it’s hard for me to point at these beauty trends and pick apart issues with them. In my experience, observations and opinions, I will say that things have certainly take a turn towards the extreme in the realm of surgery and its outcomes – but that is more about issues with doctors and looking less and less at what fits a person’s face, and more at the money. In South Korea especially, there is an extreme diet culture, though in all of Asia mentioning weight loss in a positive light is seen as very complimentary. There is an increasing level of balance, the extremes are tapering off and definitely not norms, but the ease of getting, and almost the necessity of getting – most especially in Korea – surgery to enhance their future prospects and conform to beauty standards is somewhat alarming. Even living there for a year, it is very hard not to fall into thinking about weight or size or overall appearance.
In the West, the beauty standards seem to change with which celebrities are currently ‘in’ – although generally the white female with enough curves to be ‘womanly’ but still skinny will sit on top.
I think one of the most persistent beauty standards in the West has always been ‘tan’ skin. Or at least ‘sunkissed’. It’s a sign of wealth to be able to jet off to tropical places for a holiday, and return bronzed and beautiful. It’s considered ‘healthy’ – seriously, the number of times I’ve been asked if I’m sick in the winter growing up was too damn high – you’re not going to see a lot of Western people with parasols and rashguards and factor 50+++ the minute the sun shows it’s face. Bronzer is used daily by people to ‘put warmth and colour’ back into the face after foundation application, there are so many fake tan brands, and sunbeds are a thing.
The hourglass figure is another trend that has stayed pretty solid since the days of early Hollywood. There have been eras where it’s lessened slightly, such as the ‘heroin chic’ models of the 90s, but generally the hourglass has been the ‘ideal’ womanly figure. Although it sits within certain parameters that seem only achievable in cartoons, or with the help of surgery – tiny waist, boobs, and a butt, add a thigh gap. Unless you’re genetically predisposed to that, it’s really hard to achieve, or quite expensive. It’s slim, low body fat, but still with boobs.
Western beauty standards have always leaned more towards the ‘sexy’ or the ‘sultry’ side of beauty. Makeup trends favour glamorous looks, full coverage, matte, dramatic around the eyes. There’s the counter movement of more toned down, natural looking ‘barely there’ makeup, but the focus and goal is essential the same: flawless or perfection.
There are crossovers; symmetrical faces, or those that hit the golden ratio are seen as beautiful in any country, as they’re most ‘aesthetically pleasing’ to the eye. Slenderness or skinniness appears in many countries as a beauty ideal, the same way there’s always a desire for thicker, more luscious hair.
But the difference is, a lot of East Asian beauty trends get billed as ‘trying to look more Western’, although that really means looking more ‘White Caucasian’, which, if you’ll excuse my language, is fucking ridiculous.
The White beauty ideal is pervasive across the globe, yes, but it is not upheld by every country.
Which brings me to my third point: the almost craze of Western people testing ‘crazy/weird/odd/etc Asian beauty products’ and basically laughing at them, or ridiculing the standards they are helping people achieve.
I’ve seen some pretty questionable content in this vein; someone tested double eyelid tape despite the fact they already had double eyelids, and then went on to say that East Asian people use the tape to create more Caucasian looking eyes. Short answer to that is, they don’t, but this idea is continually reported by English language outlets because: why would it be any different?
It frustrates me, because despite the fact that a lot of these beauty tools – such as the nose shapers, or the v-line masks – might not do as much as surgery would in the way of altering face-shape, people believe that they help to achieve the beauty ideals set by the countries the tools originate from. It frustrates me, because these tools offer people an alternative to surgery, in the same way that lip plumpers help people get that Kylie Jenner pout, and push-up bras are a thing. Yet because they’re from a different country they’re suddenly odd, othered, weird.
It’s frustrating because no, or the absolute bare minimum of, research is done into what the products are supposed to help, then throughout the piece they’re essentially ridiculed.
Although this may seem like a reach, it is, in turn, basically ridiculing those people who buy these products to help them with the insecurities they have, due to the beauty standards they are exposed to in the countries these products originate.
Most of this occurs in the youtube videos, but I have seen a trend in sheetmask reviews of people saying things along the lines of they look like something from a horror film, or if it’s worth it to look this scary in the name of beauty. I do get where the idea comes from, but if you can move past thinking other forms of mask make you look scary, then why suddenly tack it back onto sheetmasks? I’ve seen people confusing whitening and brightening, assuming they mean the same thing (they don’t) because Asian products are currently trending and it’s a bandwagon to hop on.
I’ve also seen people criticise apps like Meitu for the auto feature shaving jawlines as well as doing the usual skin smoothing that Western facial alteration apps do (don’t tell me there aren’t certain snapchat or instagram filters you gravitate towards…). There was an article last year about a woman who was mad at Samsung for the instant ‘airbrushing’ on front-camera selfies, which had me eyerolling into a new level of done-ness because: 1) you can turn it off, and 2) Samsung is a Korean made phone, their market first and foremost, is Koreans, and thus caters to Korean beauty standards. They do make different versions for different markets (for instance, if you buy a Samsung phone in Korea, you cannot turn the shutter sound off for photos, since they had issues with people take sneaky shots), but some of the features stick. The beauty filter won’t cater to all beauty standards. In the realm of apps though, these are designed by Chinese, Japanese, or Korean programmers, and the intended market is Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. They’re not intended to apply western beauty standards to a western face, they apply East Asian beauty standards to East Asian faces, and, as covered earlier, that includes facial slimming.
It may be odd, but it isn’t outrageous. It’s just a different beauty ideal.
Meitu will, no doubt, be over it’s little 15 minutes of Western interest by next month. But it, and many of its sister apps, are a staple on people’s phones in East Asia – or people interested in fashion and trends of the region – because it helps people achieve those beauty goals.
As ever, if you’d like to add to, or potentially correct any of the points I’ve made or raised here, then please don’t hesitate to let me know!
What are your thoughts on apps like Meitu, or videos that ‘test out’ asian beauty tools (specifically, more than products like skincare or makeup)?