Why I Struggle to Laugh at Warped Taobao Photos

It’s easy to laugh at outlandishly photoshopped pictures of online clothing models, but the beauty standards that they reflect, and arguably cause, shouldn’t be taken lightly.

When a law was suggested in the UK that would make it mandatory for all digitally altered images to be labeled as such, I gave an internal shout of joy. 

The UK’s “Digitally Altered Body Images Bill”, now in its 2nd reading stage, would “require advertisers and publishers to display a logo whenever a person’s face or body has been digitally enhanced”, according to the BBC. In a society saturated with unrealistic images, where we spend an ever-increasing amount of time with our eyes on screens rather than on real people, this is sorely needed. Along with the UK’s burgeoning “third wave” of body positivity, and the more radical fat acceptance movement in various healthier areas of the internet, public opinion seems to be shuffling in a more accepting direction.

In China, however, I see no such signs of that happening. Beauty standards and the societal pressures that reinforced them seem, in fact, to be getting harsher, with a worrying lack of voices protesting. One place I see this most starkly is in the hoardes of photoshopped images on monolithic internet shopping platform, Taobao.

One of the first things I noticed when I moved to China is that the standards against which Asian women’s bodies are judged are more severe. Recently, they’re becoming increasingly extreme. Chinese models – or more accurately, photoshopped images of Chinese models – are, as a rule, far slimmer than their western counterparts, with even less room for diversity. Photos almost always showcase a long list of the features seen as attractive in Chinese culture: extreme thinness, enormous eyes, white skin, a small, narrow face, long “chopstick” legs and, more recently as activewear and the Kardashians have burst onto the scene, swollen breasts and buttocks. Most of these features, especially when combined, create a figure so anatomically unrealistic that some images are almost laughable. 

Protesting against this might seem like a snowflake issue. Models are supposed to be outlandishly beautiful; that’s why they’re paid to wear things. Do we really need telling that online images are not realistic? Besides, what’s a small warning label going to do about it apart from fade into the background? Chinese women aren’t fools. They’ve seen enough photoshop to be able to tell when something is fake.

But to me, this is exactly the problem. If it were just clothing brands editing bodies, it would be less worrying, but editing photos is common to the point of banality even (especially) for photos taken amongst friends. The culture that so much photo editing creates – of perfectionism, of glossing over, of our eyes learning to view something artificial as attractive – is insidiously harmful, because it by nature implies that your real, unedited self is not good enough.

It’s normal in China to spend 15 minutes or more “P”-ing (photoshopping) an image before you post it to Wechat, making your skin whiter, legs longer, face slimmer, eyes bigger. Some “P” technologies are incredibly powerful, and well-edited images and videos are actually rarely obvious. The above examples are only the most clearly edited ones. Chinese people aren’t fools; but you don’t have to be a fool to be negatively affected by an overall cultural trend and sophisticated technology. These bodies are unavoidable; adverts in China are notoriously inescapable, with loud, peppy videos popping up everywhere from billboards to phone screens to the inside of elevators and taxis.

A host of mental illnesses, eating disorders in particular, have been shown by multiple studies (Hessebiber,GriffithsSpettigue) to be directly linked to exposure to media which idealizes ultra-lean or otherwise unattainable bodies. As engagement with image- and video-based social media has increased in the US, so have diagnosed cases of youth mental illness, highlighted in a recent studypublished by the American Psychological Association, which recorded a 52% increase in major depressive episodes in US adolescents beginning “after 2011, concurrent with the increased ownership of smartphones”. Likes and followers literally give a numerical popularity rating to each person and picture, and Taobao images further replicate and exaggerate the popular types of bodies found on social media. 

Pressure to conform to beauty standards in China – particularly for women, who consistently express lower rates of body satisfaction than men across many cultures – comes in hard from all directions with almost no voices protesting. It’s common for Chinese bachelors (or their family members) to stipulate height and weight requirements for potential partners; actresses are shunned if they vary from the unspoken rules of being tall, pale and willowy thin; fat shaming is common, both in media and within circles of peers and relatives. 

All of this, along with China’s rapidly swelling middle class (middle class adolescents are by far the highest risk group for contracting eating disorders and depression), contribute to an environment where comparing bodies and finding yourself wanting has never been easier. Unsurprisingly, a 2020 study found that only 24% of Chinese women were satisfied with how they looked. And in China, where mental health is generally poorly understood and seeking support for even the most serious mental health issues is still a taboo, it is worrying to think about the type of silent harm being inflicted, unchallenged, on vast swathes of the population.

Not that other countries don’t have the same problem: A recent survey reported only around 20% of UK adults (male and female) had a positive body image, while an enormous 60% felt negative about the way they looked. Maybe, then, the conversations and campaigns promoting positive body image are useless. Perhaps there is an argument to be made for doctored pictures being a healthy form of escapism. So much of our lives are now online that photos arguably make up a large portion – maybe even the majority – of our reality. So why not make that reality look good? 

But the core of our being is still in the physical. The physical world can exist without the virtual, but not vice versa; happiness in reality carries over into the virtual world, but the opposite is rarely true. Often, a happy virtual life covers an unhappy real one.

I struggle to laugh at Taobao’s seemingly ridiculous warped figures because they reflect a greater problem, of harsh comparison and surface level perfectionism. With an overwhelmingly middle-aged male leadership, legislation is probably a long way off. It’s difficult to imagine a government consumed by issues like corruption, regime change in Hong Kong, provincial debt and vast social inequality making photoshop a priority. Perhaps China’s women, more educated than ever, will begin to use their spending power to demand a more diverse reality, as seen with the popularity of underwear brand Neiwai. That really would make me shout for joy.

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