As part of her PhD in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Amy Niu studied selfie editing. In 2019, she conducted a study to determine the impact of beauty filters on the self-image of American and Chinese women. She took photos of 325 female college students and applied filters to some of the photos without telling them. She then surveyed these women to measure their emotions and self-esteem when they saw the edited or unedited photos. Her unpublished study found that Chinese women feel better about themselves after viewing edited photos, while American women (87% of them are white) feel the same regardless of whether the photos are edited or not.
Niu believes that the results show that there are huge differences between different cultures in terms of “beauty standards and how sensitive people are to these beauty filters.”She added, “Tech companies are realizing this, they are making different versions [of their filters] To meet the needs of different groups of people. ”
This has some very obvious manifestations. Niu Niu, a Chinese woman living in the United States, uses both TikTok and Douyin, and the Chinese version (both are produced by the same company, although the content is different, but many functions are the same). Both apps have “beautify” functional modes, but they are different: Chinese users get more extreme smoothing and skin tone brightening effects.
She said that these differences not only reflect the standards of cultural beauty—they perpetuate them. White Americans tend to prefer filters that make skin darker, teeth whiter, and longer eyelashes, while Chinese women prefer filters that make skin brighter.
Niu worries that the proliferation of filtered images is making beauty standards more uniform over time, especially for Chinese women. “In China, the beauty standards are more uniform,” she said, adding that the filter “eliminates many differences on our faces” and strengthens a special look.
Amira Adawe 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 non-profit organization based in Minnesota that aims to combat colorism and skin whitening practices. The organization launched a program to educate young girls of color about online safety, healthy digital behaviors, and the dangers of body whitening.