How beauty filters perpetuate colorism against people with darker skin

Amy Niu is studying 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 the self-image of American and Chinese women. She took photos of 325 college-aged women and, without telling them, applied a filter to some photos. She then surveyed the women to gauge their emotions and self-esteem when they saw photos, retouched or not. Her results, which have not yet been released, found that Chinese women who looked at edited photos felt better about themselves, while American women (87% of whom were white) felt much the same, whether their photos have been edited or not.

Niu believes the results show that there are huge differences between cultures when it comes to “standards of beauty and people’s sensitivity to these beauty filters.” She adds, “Tech companies are realizing this, and they’re making different versions. [of their filters] to adapt to the needs of different groups of people.

This has 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, but not the same content.) Both apps both have “Beautify” modes, but they are different: Chinese users benefit from more extreme smoothing and brightening 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 tan, teeth whiter, and eyelashes longer, while Chinese women prefer filters that make their skin lighter.

Niu is concerned that the vast proliferation of filtered images may standardize beauty standards over time, especially for Chinese women. “In China, the standard of beauty is more consistent,” she says, adding that the filters “erase a lot of the differences in our faces” and reinforce a particular look.

“It’s really bad”

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 Minnesota-based nonprofit organization 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.

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