When Your Selfie Doesn’t Look Like You
Sabrina is a female graduate student from China whom I first encountered in a class I took last year. Since the class was only with a small number of students in an intimate setting, most of us in the class ended up becoming good friends by the end of the semester. At the last day of the class, over some red wine and chips, we excitedly sent Facebook friend requests and followed each other on Instagram. It’s what people do when they make new friends, right?
A few seconds of a glimpse at the people’s pictures on the social media taught me many new things about them: Natalie was like a party-animal type obviously; Esteban’s Instagram pictures reassured me about his regular hipsterness; Rui the shy girl turned out to be a serious online gamer, interesting. And when I finally traveled into Sabrina’s Facebook page, the first reaction that came to my mind was: “But it’s not her.”
The Facebook account was surely Sabrina’s with the right name and information of her. There were multiple mutual friends between us also. But there was something wrong with the pictures—supposedly of herself—posted by her. Those were dozens of selfie of a young woman who somehow looked like Sabrina, but the face in the pictures felt so awkward, manipulated, and even surreal. The chin looked almost as pointy as the ear of a fox. The skin was excessively glossy, like a well-polished surface of a super car. The eyes were like those of a Japanese animation character.
It didn’t take me a while to realize that the selfies of her were taken or edited by Meitu, a selfie retouching application made by a Chinese company. What Meitu does is simple: Making your face look more “beautiful.” Your protruded teeth become straight and even. The little unwanted pimple you got yesterday can go. Your chubby cheek now turns into a slender type. The app automatically detects what to be changed on your face and gives suggestions which the users may adopt or not.
How does the machine know what more beautiful face is? There is a complex data-driven algorithm behind Meitu. To put it simply, the app’s algorithm is constantly fed while collecting the users’ facial features and the editing suggestions people end up taking. If you choose a whiter skin tone over your original one, the app will give extra points to the whiter skin, providing the same retouching suggestion to another user who has a similar skin tone.
As you may suspect, Meitu is becoming a dreadful killer of a long-lasting “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” debate. In China, a growing number of young females would never post or even take a selfie without using Meitu because the original picture feels “too ugly.” It is not a surprise that some people take it far more seriously, getting plastic surgery to reconcile their actual faces with the Meitu images. It certainly does more than simply erase people’s uniqueness through its algorithm. It governs people’s body and dictates what feature of human shape is more desirable over the other.
And if this is the more beautiful world the app company claims to achieve (their motto goes “To make the world a more beautiful place”) by their services, the first reaction that comes to my mind is: “But it’s not us.”