Ever the food-oriented society, traditional Chinese compliments of yore include gems like "ni pang le" (literally, "you've fattened up"), indicating you've been eating a lot, and that life's been treating you pretty well.
Fast forward to 2022, and the above remark now pretty much implies you've been stuffing your face; addressing any (fe)male with these words is likely to inspire a crash diet. Or two.
On March 31, Vice Media released a short YouTube documentary titled China's Viral "Skinny Enough" Challenges Are Making People Sick, featuring three Chinese women who have grown up in an age where the need to be thin has been amplified across social media. "Skinny enough" challenges are a trend across Chinese platforms that encourage users to create content featuring their bodies conforming to prescribed standards of thinness.
As a new generation of online users is exposed to the latest viral "challenges," more cases of eating disorders are being reported throughout the country. One member of the documentary's production team, on condition of anonymity, told this reporter, "In China, mental health remains a stigmatized discussion. Any mental health issue is almost always referenced as a physical ailment. Many women who are suffering from eating disorders will often describe their ailments as having a headache or stomachache as a way to divert the conversation. We wanted to put the story out there and raise awareness before the damage done becomes irreversible."
For young Chinese women, in this article defined as those aged 14-35, beauty ideals frequently include pale white skin, large round eyes and super-slim figures. These standards are constantly reinforced by friends, families and employers, making it hard to escape the "norm." Today, however, some Chinese influencers choose to break free from society's corset and carve out their own, curvier path.
Many of the nation's beauty standards stem from days long past. The white skin ideal, for example, is an old Chinese idea that only wealthy people had pale skin as they didn't have to labor outdoors. Many of these outdated notions still run rife in a country that holds tight to tradition.
These aesthetics are ceaselessly conveyed to hundreds of millions of young consumers by the entertainment and fashion industries, with little discussion devoted to the potential harm they cause. On social media, content featuring decadent food vies with content featuring thin bodies and weight-loss for female attention, driving many women into the arms of anxiety, depression, and at times life-threatening eating disorders. Similarly, for males there is pressure to be tall, thin and on-trend. Often influenced by K-Pop and Japanese anime culture, China's teens find themselves striving for that unattainable body image.
The ultra-thin ideal is all over the digital stratosphere. Short video apps come with filters that make users' faces smaller and legs unrealistically thinner. Celebrities and influencers for years have indulged in social media "skinny enough" challenges showing off their bodies. These include measuring their waists against a piece of A4 paper, putting coins in the hollows of their collarbones, and trying on children's clothes.
China's social media "body testing" craze all began with the 2015 belly button challenge. This fad encouraged people to wrap their arms around their backs to touch their belly button, and asserted that this achievement proved they were fit and healthy. Another challenge, the "iPhone 6 knees" challenge, required social media users to totally hide both knees beneath an iPhone 6 (15.8 cm in length) to prove they possess a pair of coveted pencil-skinny legs. The fad accumulated over 90 million views and 80,000 comments on Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent.
Fitting into tiny clothes has become a fashion in itself. Brandy Melville, an Italian fast-fashion brand known for its "one size fits most" philosophy, in the past two years has sparked a global social media craze by effectively creating an exclusive club of slender women who can fit into its extra-small clothes. In China, these women are called "BM girls."
New poster girls
On Douyin, China's version of TikTok, body-positive influencer Theresa (pseudonym) wants to share a new message of curvy acceptance. With 840,000-plus followers, she receives an average engagement of 13,000 per post. According to Theresa, China's national body image to this day is a result of pride and
prejudice, with the slightly heavier women in society often forced to bear the sandwich board burden of "loser" or "weakling" titles.
Academics engaging with these trends often find that with economic growth comes a rise in eating disorders; people are more sedentary but indulge in more food, and therefore gain weight. Usually, this reflects an economically successful country, but for those women torn between a skinny, cute-centric society and food-oriented socializing, it's anything but a recipe for success.
Social media still primarily and most prominently features thin girls. "Bigger girls putting themselves out there may appear more accepting of their size, but the image they channel remains a bit weird," Theresa explained. "Shaking their belly fat when wearing clothes that are three sizes too small, very popular on Douyin, gives off more a 'what not to wear' vibe, rather than showing bigger can be just as beautiful."
This is not the body-positive vibe Theresa aims to share on Douyin. "It's a slippery slope," she continued. "When you have no self-love, this can spiral out of control and affect your relationships, career and self-image."
China-born, Los Angeles-based influencer Scarlett Hao is an ambassador for curvy Asian women. Operating under the brand name Scarlett Halo, the 29-year-old has 275,000 followers on Instagram, with an average engagement of 5,000 per post. In 2018, Hao made a guest appearance on a primetime Chinese talk show, during which the host asked her, "Do you think you look good or fat?" With one question, the Beijing host revealed the fundamental dichotomy that exists within traditional cultural preferences surrounding body image: that one can look good or look fat. That same year, Hao's first-ever post on China's Little Red Book app raked in 4,000 likes within three hours.
Hao has always found herself at the slightly larger end of the size charts and, in the past, this led to crash dieting and rigorously restricted food intake. However, no matter how few braised beef slices or crushed garlic cucumber squares she ate, after losing 10 kg, the curves were still there. "Enough," she told herself. The time had come for a complete overhaul, taking the negative thoughts and turning them into positive assets of self-empowerment. Hao embraced her looks from head to toe and turned her story from one of harmful awareness into a tale of positive branding.
"Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder; not that of a filtering app," Hao said. "There's no need to toe the social media line. There's no need to crash diet and end up burning more than your calories."
With social media usage at an all-time high, and in light of the ever-increasing precision with which algorithms attract and ensnare users, the flow of information to China's youth is increasing in both volume and strength. It's becoming almost impossible for them to scroll through their many feeds and avoid the onslaught of (online) celebrities telling them what to do—which is often to look more like their app-altered selves. "These super apps create a false reality. The creation and borderline exploitation of warped and edited pictures makes teens become increasingly confused about what they 'should' look like," the Vice production team member added. "The importance of promoting 'inner beauty' and a healthy body (image) on social media is becoming ever-more prevalent."
Unable to dodge influencers and ubiquitous advertising, many Chinese youth are being primed for body image dissatisfaction. Hopefully, with the international message of body positivity and authenticity now taking tentative steps into China through poster girls like Theresa and Hao, more and more young Chinese women are waking up to the idea of body confidence and positivity.
"Cultivate your curves. They may be dangerous, but they won't be avoided."— Mae West.
(Print Edition Title: Cue the Curves!)
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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