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When your phone tells you beauty = whiteness

Monday 23rd May 2016

Beauty, as the saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder. And in the age of the selfie, beauty is often viewed through the lens of a front-facing phone camera. 

Huawei smartphones include a “beauty” function that can automatically adjust every self-portrait, but whoever designed the camera function for the Chinese phone manufacturer had some troubling ideas about what makes someone attractive.

Huawei beauty mode settings

via @shonaghosh

You can whiten your skin, but not darken it; make your eyes bigger, but not reduce their size. It also slims your face and, less controversially perhaps, makes your skin smoother.

The adjustments are all done on a scale of one to 10, with each level making you look more alien-like. 

Huawei released its latest model - the P9 smartphone - last month with Scarlett Johansson as the face of the advertising campaign. The actress is currently in New Zealand filming Ghost in the Shell.

Other phone manufacturers – LG, Sony and Samsung – have smoothing and lightening features, but none seem quite daring enough to call it "whiten" (although, that's basically what they all do). There are also a hoard of apps you can download if you want to look whiter.

In response to requests from The Wireless, a spokesperson from the company said: "This is not an area Huawei is able to comment on." 

Researchers point out the beauty ideal of white skin in Asia predates colonialism and its contemporary meaning has combined with Western ideologies. Light skin operates as a form of cultural capital. It's closely connected to ideals of attractiveness and desirability.

Earlier this year, a Thai advertisement came under fire after it claimed white skin was the key to success.

The actress in the ad promised that the beauty product "will help you not to return to being dark".

"Eternally white, I am confident," she said. 

The company, Seoul Secret, apologised and released a statement saying: "Our company did not have any intention to convey discriminatory or racist messages."

The value of the global market for skin lightening products is estimated to reach $23 billion by 2020, propelled mostly by growth in the Asia-Pacific region.

Check out these before and after pics of RNZ staff using the Huawei beauty mode: 

RNZ International journalist Koroi Hawkins
RNZ International journalist Koroi Hawkins
RNZ music producer Yadana Saw
RNZ music producer Yadana Saw
The Wireless editor Marcus Stickley
RNZ digital features editor Marcus Stickley
The Wireless reporter Mava Moayyed
The Wireless reporter Mava Moayyed
RNZ developer Lukas Nguyen
RNZ developer Lukas Nguyen


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“But it's not really your phone telling you this is it? Just a rather odd filtering algorithm with a random name. As you suggest, it could more accurately be called the "Alien Filter".” — NZ Taxpayer


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Mava is an award-winning journalist, formally with The Wireless.
Jeremy Rose is an RNZ producer on the Mediawatch and Sunday Morning programmes.
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