Walk through any shopping district in Hong Kong and it’s impossible to avoid images of svelte models, all angular faces, displaying the season’s latest trends. It’s a similar story in any 7-Eleven or Circle K, where the magazine racks heave with celebrities made up, styled and Photoshopped to perfection. It’s an intimidating ideal to try and match – one Nicola Fan is fighting back against. Her documentary, She Objects, highlights how the media creates and exacerbates gender stereotypes with often damaging consequences for youngsters’ self-esteem and body satisfaction. “Once I read all the statistics and research regarding how the media influences a girl’s self-esteem, it really brought back all my memories from when I was younger,” says Fan, remembering the film’s genesis.
The journey to filmmaker was a circuitous one for the 27-year-old. After growing up in Hong Kong she opted to study in the United States at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Upon graduation, Fan headed south to New York to work as a graphic design consultant at big name corporations like JP Morgan and Time Warner. Once her work visa expired, Fan returned to Hong Kong to be with her family and because ‘I felt I had less limitations’. Eventually, she stumbled upon local NGO the Society of Community Organisation, which became the focus of a ‘zero budget’ 15-minute documentary she made. The film garnered the attention of The Women’s Foundation, who were seeking a director to take the reigns on a documentary of their own.
With buxom girls advertising sunscreen on the sides of buses up and down the city and magazines and social media pushing very particular images of what women should look like, Hong Kong is a particularly tough environment for young girls to grow up in. “We found that among 22 countries in the world, Hong Kong people rank the third lowest in terms of satisfaction towards their looks,” states Fan. “We also found out that girls between 11 and 13 are more anxious, unhappy and lacking in confidence compared to five years ago.”
In an attempt to discover why Hongkongers are so unhappy with their appearance, Fan dived into social media and was disturbed by what she found. “I realised how much of a black hole of saturated perfection Instagram is,” she tells us. “I could see how a young girl could really go in there and get sucked into it and feel the pressure to conform.” The pressure to stay focused on one’s looks is something Fan is no stranger to. She recalls that: “Every time I visited [home] after a long break, my aunts or uncles would comment on my looks first. That was usually the icebreaker. I felt that weight on me all throughout the years when I was younger.” If the situation was bad when Fan was younger, she believes it has become even worse with the ubiquity of smartphones and social media. “With selfies,” she says, “[things are] even more enhanced because we’re not even comparing ourselves to celebrities any more, we’re comparing with everyone. Maybe that’s why we’re never satisfied with what we have and why we can’t seem to own what we already have either.”
Fan was especially moved by one individual in her documentary, a girl engaged in compensated dating. “When I saw her in person she was small-built and very frail-looking,” recalls Fan. “Hearing her tell us explicit details of what happened to her, how she got into the business of compensated dating and how she felt afterwards… It was heartbreaking to see such a young person go through so much and in circumstances that weren’t always under her control.”
Fan is hopeful her documentary will spark new dialogues that can prevent similar cases occurring. “I hope it can help generate more conversation, even if it’s slightly hard,” she tells us. “When adults start making comments, young girls internalise that. They might not express that they’re upset by it but they put those comments into perspective and live with them.” We all have a responsibility to set a positive example to impressionable youngsters and Fan is more aware of this responsibility than most. “I want to encourage all of us to be more mindful of what we are contributing to our media environment,” she says. “We’re all media consumers and creators now.” Douglas Parkes
For more information about She Objects and The Women’s Foundation visit twfhk.org.