The Hindu Business Line
TECHNOLOGY A photo app that re-sets beauty standards in China, in a swipe
Meitu has 446 million users, is valued at $4.6 b after it completed an initial public offering
Your phone can make your face fairer. A touch can taper your jaw. It can slim your cheeks. Widen your eyes. Of course, it can make you thinner.
In China, beauty — of a particular kind — can come from a swipe. A photo app called Meitu gives its users the power to create idealised versions of their real-world selves and share them with others. Its makers say: “Our mission is to make the world a more beautiful place.”
Meitu and its related apps are hugely popular in China. The apps have 446 million users, and Meitu says more than half of the photos circulated there in June on social mediawere filtered using its editing app.
“Meitu makes everybody look more beautiful in an easy way,” says Du Sha, 26, a graduate student who uses it mainly to erase acne and to smoothen and brighten her skin. “It’s a good technology for people to be more social or improve their self-confidence.”
Meitu, the company, now hopes its app will have appeal elsewhere. This week, it completed a $629 million initial public offering in Hong Kong — long a gateway for Chinese companies seeking foreign money — and is exploring taking its selfie apps to other parts of the world. Its shares traded modestly lower on their first day on the market, valuing Meitu at $4.6 billion.
The question is whether the world wants Meitu’s idea of beauty.
Apps like Instagram and Snapchat have long allowed people to apply flattering filters and wash out their pores. Meitu goes several steps beyond. Cheeks can be stretched and pinched. Chins can be shaved off. Eyes can be contoured.
In addition, its tools are tailored toward a standard of beauty — female beauty, mostly — that is particular to China and countries like South Korea and Japan: pale skin, elfin features, skinny limbs and wide eyes.
“I want to look cuter sometimes,” said Zha Nan, 23, an information technology researcher who has used the app for years. “Using Meitu to fix these things, I feel more comfortable looking at my own face.”
Meitu says local teams in different markets are tailoring the software to other standards. But, more fundamentally, Meitu approaches the subject of looks in a manner that reflects common thinking in modern China — like money, education and a good job, beauty is something one can aspire to.
It’s a case of “‘I do it because I would like to have a beautiful photo in my CV,’ ” said Wen Hua, a gender consultant for the United Nations Population Fund, who wrote a book about cosmetic surgery in China called Buying Beauty. Beauty, she says, is seen as a step toward success in work and in society.
Appearance and aspiration
China is an aspirational market. Companies like Apple, Starbucks and Audi have made fat profits selling high-priced gadgets, coffee and cars to Chinese consumers who want to show they have made it.
Still, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite, and the average Chinese consumer has only a fraction of the money to spend as the average American does. Competition to get into universities is fierce, and competition for good jobs after college can be fiercer.
For women, the field can be even tougher. China’s anti-discrimination laws are rarely enforced.
Help-wanted ads often specify whether the employer is looking for a man or a woman, and those looking for females often set height or appearance requirements.
The growth of China’s service sector puts further pressure on appearance. China’s manufacturing jobs in the past had such strong job security that they were sometimes called the “iron rice bowl,” but the growth of the service sector has led to more jobs that focus on appearance, leading some women to aim for what Wen refers to as the “rice bowl of youth.”