Some time ago we decided the pictures on our website deserved a makeover – they hadn’t been changed for years. Over time we all got even prettier, so why not show it to the world, am I right? ;-)
We considered a few options but finally decided a professional photo studio was the best option as we wanted to make sure we got well-shot personal pictures and a quality group photo. Well, we learned and now we know we had made a mistake our clients often make – we underestimated China. Rather, I should say that Tait and I think it was a mistake; our Chinese colleagues are quite exultant with how they look in the pictures, even though the resemblance is distinct.
The lesson we learnt is important though. It’s yet another example of how monumentally different the East and West are. I’m not saying we don’t photoshop pictures in Western countries, but the beauty standards are different. Also, Body Positivity movements are getting more and more popular on the West; people mock magazines’ covers and movie posters with celebrities who can barely be recognized. Instagram is being ridiculed for showing life that is just too perfect. In China, the trend is opposite – “the prettier, the better” – regardless of how the reality looks like.
There are beauty standards in China you need to follow to be considered an attractive person. Some of them come from the past, of course. Just as in Western countries: lighter skin was a sign of higher-class superiority – working in the field under the sun doesn’t yield porcelain-like skin, does it?
However, most of the ideals Chinese young people chase nowadays are coming from K-pop culture and Western countries. Searching through Taobao or other e-commerce platforms, you see the phrase “Korean style” a lot, mostly while searching for clothes. With Western ideals, it’s a bit more tricky cause it’s not just about hair colour, but rather, about changing your features altogether. For most Chinese people, it’s rather impossible to have big blue eyes, a high nose or hairy eyebrows. I’m not sure which culture a V-shaped chin comes from, but following this trend requires changing your face completely. That’s where this contemporary surge of Korean-style plastic surgery has come from. I’ve even seen a poster a few weeks ago encouraging participation in a plastic surgery festival in Shanghai.
For those who cannot afford the surgery, shopping platforms offer a lot of tricks that allow you to change your face completely – as the merchants claim – starting with coloured contact lenses, skin whiteners etc. You can see some of my favourites below.
It’s this fixation on attaining Western features that leads to the popularity of foreigners in China. I personally know how nice it is when people tell you how pretty you are on a daily basis. Or at least in the very beginning. Later, you realize it’s all about that grass always being greener somewhere else. And just as many Chinese people won’t hesitate to ask you if your eyes are fake (because how can they be green without the lenses!), they are also very direct criticizing other people- especially, when it comes to their body size.
It’s difficult to spot a truly obese Chinese person, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any. If you see any extra kilos, it’s typically a kid. I blame McDonald’s, KFC and grandparents.
In the meantime, Chinese social media goes crazy over the photo and video challenges like: is my waist thinner than an A4 sheet of paper? In China, a trend for a healthy, well-balanced diet and regular exercise routine may be getting popular in the 1st-tier cities, like Shanghai or Beijing. But for the substantial part of society “pretty” equates “skinny.” Luckily, most girls really are tiny and skinny – bless their metabolism. But I feel for those girls who are not so lucky… In China, comments like “you’re fat” or “you gained weight again!” is as habitual as saying “the weather is nice today”.
As you probably realized, I have talked so much about the beauty standards, because they are crucial to what Chinese people want to see in pictures. Here, even more than in Europe, I’m guilty of stopping in the middle of the street and staring at the billboards and posters. They. Are. Just. Beautiful. And even though I get all the attention because of my snow-white skin, I feel inadequate compared to the foreign features of the Asian women I’ve found myself surrounded by. I look at them and think: can they be any prettier?
But what is the truth behind the pictures? It’s not like I was unaware Photoshop was heavily applied on the ads around the world, but when our pictures came to us after the photoshoot I realized how much I’d underestimated the magic of the program.
I wonder how many people looking at our website thought we hired a bunch of models to make a good impression. That’s what I see when I look at the pictures. You know what I don’t see? My colleagues. The final pictures we got from the photo studio would do very well in the fashion or beauty industry, but they are certainly not what we had in mind. We asked them to take pictures that would show us just as we are – a group of friendly people. I even personally chose the pictures and supervised the editing. I just never thought that after we left the studio, they’d have edited them again…
It turns out none of us was slim enough, or white enough, not to mention we all got V-shaped chins and huge eyes. I went mad when we finally received the pictures. They were so nice that the people from the studio printed out and framed the pictures for us – so that I could stare at my imperfect face all day long. It took me a sec to realize it was still our team. Now, when I look at the pictures, I have a feeling we even look a bit like aliens. I mean, look closely, the huge unnaturally shaped eyes, the tiny noses, and the pale skin! Look at the skin! They removed every single mark and wrinkle, and smoothed us up so much, we look like made from play-doh.
As I already mentioned, I got really angry and asked them to reverse the process. The problem was, the people from the studio didn’t really understand why I was mad – we looked pretty, didn’t we? We convinced them to send us the unphotoshopped photos as well, which we will be using now. As you can imagine, our team is not thrilled. They actually like how they look like movie stars! I even noticed one of the girls photoshopped her pictures even more – yup, I was also surprised that you could photoshop them even more!
So, after we decided to share what we had learnt, we went straight to the source. We talked to the photo editor working in the studio about these standards in China. And then dug even deeper and talked to two photographers – one was Chinese, and the other was a foreigner working in China.
The photo editor was a girl and she didn’t see anything wrong in photoshopping the pictures. I asked her if she considered it cheating – changing your face and body completely – and she said no. In her opinion, it’s just a way of showing your “better self” and gaining self-confidence. “If you look at the picture of yourself which is ugly, how can you feel good about yourself,” she said.
She also mentioned, some of the clients want to keep the pictures more natural, but none of them asked not to edit them at all. And most of the clients say it doesn’t matter if they look real – as long as they look pretty, it’s all fine. They want to share the pictures to WeChat Moments, and they can’t do it if they don’t look nice enough. They also come to the studio to capture an important event in their lives, who would like to look ugly, right?
The second person I talked to, Li Tao, shoots weddings mostly. He says they do retouch the pictures, but they focus on adjusting the colours and skin tones, they don’t change any shapes. He also mentioned he’d never met anyone who wouldn’t have liked their pictures to be retouched or even photoshopped. “Isn’t it why you go to the professional photographer in the first place,” he asked.
We also spoke with Chris Eckhardt who specializes in event photography. I was particularly interested in talking to him, as his perspective is a bit broader. After all, he lives by the Western standards, but shoots by the Chinese ones. In his opinion, Chinese “tend to want a fair amount of manipulation balancing between realistic appearance and what is considered beautiful by social convention and social media today”. He noticed that most girls have very similar expectations. It can be a bit tricky, as he sometimes has to delete a group picture and reshoot just because one of them says she doesn’t look pretty enough.
But, to be fair, the difference may be striking when you shoot private pictures. In the West, you would probably only use Lightroom to retouch the colours, while in China, private shoots are treated exactly like the commercial ones. But when it comes to shooting ads they use Photoshop, no matter in which country you are in.
The goal of analyzing the beauty standards in China and showing you what the studio did with our pictures was to show you, as usual, how different China (and in this case I’d even say - Asia) is from what we are used to. We fell into the trap despite our collective 10+ years’ experience in China. The pictures on our website and in our newsletter are mostly viewed by foreigners. And in foreigners’ eyes, they probably look just ridiculous. But for our Chinese website, we decided to keep the photoshopped ones. We also post them on Chinese social media. Why? Because that’s what most of Chinese consumers want to see.
For the purpose of writing this blog post, I started obsessively looking for good examples of how much they photoshop pictures in China. It was not too difficult. Whether the model is 20 or 50 years old, it makes no difference, they edit the pictures the same way. Which may be more acceptable with the younger people, but if you remove all the wrinkles on the 50 year-old guy’s face, it looks rather ridiculous.
Chinese people expect perfection from the ad campaigns. They don’t want to see “all natural” models. They like ideals they could chase. Take the pictures they post on their WeChat Moments. Most of them are taken with Meitu or FaceU, the beautifying apps. Some of the girls even edit their pictures with professional programs to make themselves look whiter, slimmer or even taller.
As the short-video apps are now becoming the hottest trend, some could say editing will come to an end. It’s not as easy to edit the video, right? Not in China! Most of the video apps provide filters that beautify your face as you shoot – similar to the filters on Snapchat. And the latest invention is AI-based feature whose advanced algorithms are designed to track key parts of human bodies, identify consumers’ legs, and slim them down (source here). I’d say it’s a terrible waste of “tens of global artificial intelligence scientists and more than 70 worlds’ first class AI doctorate degree holders” that work for Tencent AI Lab, but what do I know…
So, the conclusion here is: make sure the content you produce for Chinese consumers fits their expectations, not yours. And it’s not just about the photos. We keep saying, and we will repeat until it sticks, that content you create for Western eyes will not necessarily catch the eyes of Chinese consumers. Even if you translate it into their language. If you want to succeed on China’s market, make sure you’re not doing your Chinese marketing “on the fly”.
And just to finish on a lighter note, the prize for the most edited picture (like EVER!) goes to a Taiwanese politician, Wang Zhiya. She was ridiculed all over the social media. Someone even asked if it was her on the poster or her granddaughter. She has already deleted the infamous picture from her Facebook page, but it seems she’s rather notorious for bending the reality.
What is your opinion? Do you agree editing pictures can help build self-confidence? Is China really that different from the West?