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March 25, 2019

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If a picture paints 1,000 words, how many are lies?

Big eyes, long nose and pointy chin on a tiny, pale face: Often called the “plastic face” or “e-celebrity face” in China, this has become a style that many aspire to, either via airbrushing or through plastic surgery.

Airbrushed pictures are still everywhere, but an anti-trend seems to be growing now, slowly and steadily, especially among younger people who want to look different, and even to ponder what constitutes beauty norms in China today.

I was reminded of this when Vogue released the picture of Shanghai-born model Tin Gao on Instagram, describing her as having a “singular appeal.”

It was instantly translated on Chinese social media, and my WeChat moments and groups were on fire.

“Is she pretty?”

“Is she ugly?”

“Does she look Chinese?”

All are questions that flooded to the fashion magazine’s Instagram account, and filled my social media platforms for days.

It wasn’t the first time such questions have been asked, and I doubt it will be the last, for aesthetics is such a culture-specific and time-specific issue. The Chinese idiom Chubby Huan and Skinny Yan describes two ancient beauties of their times, 700 years apart. One is so skinny that she can dance on a plate while the other ... can’t.

The most famous Chinese supermodel Liu Wen was long considered more in accord with Western ideals of Chinese beauty, but the public perception of her look has changed dramatically in recent years, partially leading to the phrase “high-level face.” It indicates exotic appearance like Liu’s preferred by international fashion brands, and that look, as well as Liu herself, now has many fans locally.

The Vogue Instagram post is a promotion for an interview with Gao on its site, calling her an “anti-model,” indicating she doesn’t comply with the typical norms of fashion models.

Only days later, two Chinese actresses in their early 40s became a top search on Weibo, because they were offended by having their photos airbrushed by fans — no wrinkles, very pale skin and somewhat unnatural-looking: Another small “anti-trend,” considering there are dozens of apps that can modify your pictures to someone your parents don’t even recognize.

Whitening and brightening the skin, enlarging the eyes, straightening the nose and sharpening the chin are all just one click away.

Their posts were followed by many comments, saying “we want to look natural too,” “no airbrushing” or “accept me as I am.”

It seems to align with the recent anti-Photoshop and anti-Instagram trends, which also have local fans. Even some airbrushing apps and plastic surgery clinics now promote themselves as less distorted modifications or more in tune with the original.

Have you ever stared at a WeChat profile picture thinking — who is this again? How come the picture is completely different from the person I remember? My worst one was sending my younger cousin his wife’s profile picture to check if it was his wife — a relative I meet dozens of times a year but never talk to on WeChat. I simply couldn’t recognize her picture!

She was one of the many men and women on my WeChat who changed their heavily poised and modified profile pictures lately. The new pictures are obviously still modified, but I can at least recognize many of them now.

Maybe the anti-trend will keep growing.


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