China’s Meitu, an Aspirational Beauty App, Goes Public
HONG KONG — Your phone can make your face whiter. 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 idealized 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 on social media there in June were 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 smooth 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, eyes wide and guileless as a baby seal’s.
“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 C.V.,’” 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.
联合国人口基金会(United Nations Population Fund)性别平等顾问文华说，在美图这件事上，人们的想法可能是，“我这样做，是因为我想要一张好看的简历照片”。她写过一本关于中国整容手术的书，名叫《购买美丽》。她说，美貌被视为在工作和社会中获得成功的一个步骤。
“Eventually it may not work in that way,” she said, “but that’s people’s perception of it.”
China — which went from grinding poverty to economic powerhouse in the span of a generation — is an aspirational market. Companies like Apple, Starbucks and Audi have made fat profits selling high-priced gadgets, coffee and rides 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. Hundreds of millions of people still live in rural areas with few prospects for jobs. 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. 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 Ms. Wen refers to as the “rice bowl of youth.”
Among those women, certain looks send certain messages. A slim figure and winsome look implies youth. Pale skin denotes a life spent indoors rather than outside working like a farmer.
Sales of beauty and personal care products in China grew by more than half between 2010 and 2015, according to Euromonitor, a market data provider, and now total more than $50 billion annually.
Cosmetic surgery has boomed — but in China, unlike other places, it is a market for the young. In China, people under 35 are the main customers for cosmetic surgery, while 80 percent of people getting plastic surgery in the United States are over 35, according to a report on the industry by HSBC. It cited, as one motivator, the prevalence of smartphone apps that expose people to beauty marketing and encourage them to scrutinize their photos.
Liu Yu says she feels the pressure to look good. She even uses Meitu for photos that go on formal identification cards and her résumé, she said, though her edits are far more modest than what she posts for online consumption.
“Many women always feel like they have flaws,” said Ms. Liu, 23, a graduate film student who uses Meitu to narrow her face, shrink her nose and remove dark circles from under her eyes. “They all wish that through some kind of method they can make themselves more beautiful. Meitu is the cheapest and most convenient way to do this.”
Meitu didn’t create this phenomenon, of course, and it rejects the idea that its business model relies on people’s insecurities or cultural pressures. Gary Ngan, its chief financial officer, says the company offers a variety of apps in part because users have a personal idea of what is beautiful.
“We have to broaden the term beauty,” he said. “It’s not just about a set way of thinking about Asian beauty. It’s about making you happy.”
He said the company was, instead, helping its users to become more confident and helping them to “become more beautiful in real life.”
“For example, when you slim your face and then eventually you say, ‘Oh, I look nice,’” he said, “then you go on a diet, go to the gym and then you become the one” in the picture.
With features such as skin whitening, Meitu says it wants to be flexible and offer options only in markets where they make sense.
“One of the fundamental beliefs of the company is that the use has to be extremely simple,” said Kai-Fu Lee, a venture capitalist who owns a stake in Meitu. Skin tone, for example, is “fixed to each country,” he said. “Is it preferable to have a tan? Some of that is automatic, some within the user’s control.”
Meitu will rely on an algorithm to adapt as it moves into other markets. The company collects data on which functions are used the most. Then it uses that data to create or tweak tools to give users what they want, often in consultation with beauty experts, celebrities and local advisers. Some of Meitu’s other apps, like one called MakeupPlus, start with the person’s skin color and offer tools based on that.
Beauty, said Mr. Ngan, is “somewhat synonymous with happiness, in a way, because you generally feel more happy when you’re more beautiful.”