How digital beauty filters perpetuate colorism

Amy Niu studies selfie-editing behavior in her PhD in psychology at University of Wisconsin, Madison. She conducted a study in 2019 to examine the effects of beauty filters on self image for American and Chinese women. She took photos of 325 women in college and applied a filter to some photos without their consent. Then, she surveyed the women to determine their feelings and self-esteem when they were exposed to edited or unedit photos. The results of her survey, which are not yet published, showed that Chinese women who saw edited photos felt better about their self-esteem, while American women (87%) felt the same regardless of whether or not they were edited.
Niu believes the results reveal that there are vast differences in cultures regarding beauty standards and how people respond to them.

There are many obvious signs. Niu, a Chinese-American woman, uses both TikTok (the Chinese version) and Douyin (the Chinese version). Both apps are made by the same company and share many of same features. Both apps have beautify options, but the Chinese version offers more skin lightening and smoothing.

She believes that cultural beauty standards are not the only reason for differences. White Americans prefer filters that lighten their skin, make their teeth whiter and make their eyelashes last longer. Chinese women prefer filters to make their skin lighter.

Niu is concerned that the proliferation of filtered photos has made beauty standards more uniform, particularly for Chinese women. She says that China's beauty standards are more uniform.

It's terrible

Amira Adawe observed the same phenomenon in the way that young girls of color use social media filters. Adawe is the executive director and founder of Beautywell, a Minnesota-based non-profit that aims to combat colorism and skin lightening. It offers programs for young girls of color to help them understand the risks of skin-lightening and how to protect themselves online.