In middle school, Michelle Liu sometimes felt insecure about her looks — especially when her friends would get together to take photographs.
To ease her discomfort, Liu turned to humor, as many people do. She started making funny faces in the group shots and getting laughs. One facial expression in particular, where she would push her chin back to contort her face and add in a goofy grin — she calls it “chinning” — earned the most chuckles. So she kept doing it, all the way through high school and into college.
“They all thought it was really funny,” the 21-year-old Chelmsford native said. “And I loved making them laugh.”
During her junior year at Bentley University last year, while she was studying in Vienna, Liu decided to reprise the silly expression and bring it abroad. She started an Instagram account called “Chinventures” and began posing in front of famous buildings and landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Westminster, taking “Chinfies” (a play on the word “selfie”) along the way.
Liu’s sense of humor has resonated with people worldwide, her posts a refreshing departure from the overly edited food photos and touched-up selfies that often dominate social media feeds and act as a digital currency.
Her Instagram account has quickly amassed a large fanbase — in the last few weeks alone, 58,000 random people have started following Liu — and landed her on a morning talk show segment set to air in the coming weeks. And, like “planking” in its heyday, “Chinning” has the potential to erupt, as others try it for themselves.
“I was so blown away that people actually enjoyed my account and thought it was funny,” said Liu, who is now a senior at the university in Waltham. “That’s really cool that it has spread.”
Liu’s “Chinning” adventures, which she brought to Amsterdam, Prague, Glasgow, and the far reaches of China, where she was visiting her grandparents recently, have landed her on BuzzFeed, Mic, and Hellogiggles, a website cofounded by actress Zooey Deschanel. She was even featured on “The Morning Show” in Australia, when she Skyped in to talk about the odd hobby.
A post that used to earn Liu a few clicks from friends familiar with her antics now racks up tens of thousands of “likes.” People shower her with admiring messages. “You are fantastic,” and “OMG [I LOVE YOU] U INSPIRE ME SO MUCH U R MY IDOL” are a few of the latest examples. And they praise her for spreading a message that promotes self-acceptance and positivity.
Liu said she didn’t expect things to go this far, but she hopes her good-natured pictures, which combine her love of humor and travel, continue to make people laugh. She said she wants people to be comfortable in their own skin and dismiss the notion that you need to look a certain way, or be a certain way, in order to be happy.
“Throughout the last couple weeks something that I have come to appreciate, which I never thought would happen, is seeing that people are inspired by it,” she said. “I didn’t know it could have that effect.”
For now, Liu is taking photos in the Boston area while she saves up money so she can travel after graduation. Until then, she hopes to just remind people to have some fun.
“I just want everyone to love themselves,” she said.Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.