Selfie esteem problems: How do bizarre online beauty crazes like the A4 paper challenge take hold?

Young women showing off plumped lips or A4-narrow waists are now part of modern life

The top of her disappearing stomach is taut behind an almost translucent sheath of white. A look of triumph flickers across her face. The girl pouts sweetly, knowing she's been successful, waiting for the “likes” to roll in. She's completed the A4 paper challenge: proving to the world via Instagram that her abdomen is small enough to be concealed by a 21cm piece of paper. Never has the phrase “paper thin” rung quite so true.

The A4 paper challenge is the latest in a long line of online beauty and fitness challenges to sweep the internet. The newest trend launched recently on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, where thousands of women have taken part, using the hashtag #A4waist. The challenge is simple: girls are photographed face-on, holding a piece of A4 paper over their tummies to show how narrow their waists are. If the sheet of paper hides your tummy, congratulations, you have an A4 waist and have “won” the challenge. The game was picked up by a number of Chinese celebrities and has since gone viral. 

But the bizarre challenge is not the first online beauty craze to emerge from China. In the past year, numerous online challenges have come and gone, from the tummy button challenge in June last year, where thousands of navel-gazing netizens posted photos of themselves on social media reaching around their backs to touch their tummy buttons, to the collarbone coin challenge, which saw women balancing rolls of coppers in the hollows between their necks and their collarbones. Most recently, in January this year, the under-boob pen challenge encouraged women to tuck pens underneath their breasts. If the pen stays put, you're a “real woman”, apparently. 

Natasha Devon MBE, founder of the campaigning group Self-Esteem team, is concerned that women who participate in these challenges are choosing to objectify themselves. “I think it's incredibly frustrating that for all the talk about women being objectified by multi-billion-pound corporations and a still fundamentally patriarchal society, they then choose to objectify themselves in this way,” says Devon. “Comparing your body to an inanimate object or chopping your body into disparate parts is the most dehumanising thing you can do to yourself. Visually and in broader terms, it speaks of a need for validation and to be noticed.” 

With artfully edited celebrity selfies available to anyone who logs on to Instagram, the pressure on young people to look perfect is almost overwhelming. Is it any wonder, then, that the Kylie Jenner big lip challenge was popular for a short time last April? Young girls keen to emulate the plumped-up lips of their idol took to sucking on bottles or shot glasses to puff up their lips. Before long, photos of bruised, swollen mouths flooded the site. Jenner, of course, remained tight-lipped about her own surgery but spoke out against the challenge, saying that “I'm not here to encourage people/young girls to look like me or to think this is the way they should look”. 

Social media, according to Devon, only feeds the frenzy. “Social media unites communities and that can be incredibly positive,” she says. “But when that community is a peculiar mixture of self-loathing, low self-esteem and medical-definition narcissism (not to be confused with Baroness' Bakewell's definition) then it can escalate incredibly quickly into something very toxic and damaging.”

Of course, with every beauty challenge comes a beauty backlash, and the A4 waist challenge is no different. In response to the latest photos, many girls have taken to posting counter-pictures of themselves posing behind degree certificates or college diplomas, thus proving women are more than their figures. 

Julia Sherman, who lives in Los Angeles, is one such woman. A photo of her not hiding her stomach behind her larger-than A4 Batchelor of Fine Arts certificate from New York University has gained more than 1000 likes on Instagram since she posted it five days ago. “Here's some old scrap of paper I found hiding in the back of my closet,” she jokes, holding her diploma. Arguably, the most encouraging part of these ever more peculiar challenges is how quickly they're parodied online.

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