In countries around the world, body-positive moments are cropping up that aim to dismantle unrealistic beauty standards by promoting all shapes and sizes. Yet in countries like China, thinness is still prized as the ultimate beauty ideal; the daintier you are, the more desirable. A “good woman”, it is commonly believed within Chinese society, “cannot be over 100 jin” which equates to roughly 50kg.
Historically, China’s “perfect woman” is a paragon of youthfulness, whiteness and svelteness. Even back in the Ch’un Ch’ia period (722-481 BC), Emperor Chu praised a slim waist and women in his harem often starved themselves to death to capture his attention. It was only a century ago when foot binding was finally outlawed, leaving behind a thousand-year history of women who strived to remould their feet to be three inches long to make themselves more attractive.
The country has a long history of objectifying women to be as delicate as possible, from waif-like waists to three-inch feet, and the standard still persists.
It’s little surprise then that cosmetic stores, billboard advertisements, and television shows and commercials are still awash with these “perfect” women. Exposure to these images, heightened by social media, has left swathes of young women pressured to adhere to these standards.
Many aspire for a middle-class lifestyle that has it all – the perfect job, visage, and figure. “Nowadays, thinness is not only associated with beauty, but also with self-discipline, success and even social class,” Dr Jue Chen, director of the Eating Disorders Centre at the Shanghai Mental Health Centre, told Sixth Tone.
Lou Wenjun is a 26-year-old office worker from central China who grew dissatisfied with her pear-shaped body and weight of 55kg. When Covid-19 lockdowns trapped her inside in the central city of Zhengzhou, she started working toward her goal of becoming 47.5kg. She only ate twice a day, worked out excessively to videos by Pamela Reif for three hours a day, and stepped on the scale every time she went to the bathroom. As more pounds dropped off, more compliments poured in. “For girls, there is no such thing as too skinny,” Wenjun told VICE World News. “You always want to get thinner. It is the beauty standard of the day.”
Social media has played a significant part in assimilating these beauty ideals, with Chinese influencers partaking in “skinny challenges” to flaunt their figure. On social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu and Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Instagram and Twitter – there is a cesspit of content about extreme dieting, weight-loss competitions and challenges.
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One of the more recent challenges includes taking mirror selfies in retail stores, and trying on clothes from the children’s section to prove you can fit into them. The BBC reported last year that the hashtag “adults trying on Uniqlo’s children’s clothes” mustered over 680 million views on Weibo.
This “Uniqlo” trend is an example of “BM style”, a popular aesthetic online among young women who take pictures wearing crop tops, slim jeans and short skirts. “BM” is an abbreviation of “Brandy Melville”, the international clothing retailer that stocks one-size-fits-all items that tend to be on the small side.
In 2021, the trend took off, and young Chinese women began sharing pictures of themselves with the caption “test if you can wear BM style.” There was even an unverified chart that went viral which indicated how much a “BM girl” should weigh according to her height. An example of which included that a woman who is 160cm tall should weigh a mere 43kg.
Other online trends that have taken off in recent years include: the “A4 waist challenge” – where women share photos of waists as wide as an edge of an A4 piece of paper (which measures 21cm), “the belly button challenge” – where women wind their arms around their back to see if they can touch their belly button, the “collarbone challenge” – where girls see if they can sit coins behind their sunken collarbones and “the wrist challenge” – where women have been spotted wrapping 100 yuan banknotes to prove that their wrist is under 4cm thick.
“Social media has played a major role in promoting the thin body ideal and encouraging women into self-objectification,” Jinbo He, a researcher on body image and eating disorders at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen, told VICE. “But the public health authorities and the media industry are not yet aware of the harm this is causing.”
Body-image dissatisfaction is an epidemic amongst a sizeable chunk of younger generations in China. While men are more likely to grapple with junk-food consumption and obesity, it seems that women are striving to be as slim as possible – no matter the cost to their health.
A study conducted in 2018 among primary school students in Guangzhou found that 78 per cent of the children aged eight to 12 were unhappy with their bodies. In another survey, conducted among female university students in 2016 and 2017, 73 per cent of the respondents said they had taken action to lose weight in the past six months, with more than half of the underweight respondents wanting to become thinner.
While eating disorders only take up a small percentage of China’s population, according to the Shanghai Mental Health Centre, the increase of eating disorder outpatients has grown from eight in 2002 to 3,000 in 2020, with hospitalisations rising from one to 2,018 within the same period. But despite some Chinese hospitals warning of an increase in cases, recognition in China is limited – as is the availability of treatment.
However, influenced by western ideas that are becoming more inclusive, body-positive movements are beginning to hatch in China that challenge the culture of championing waif-like females as the ultimate beau ideal.
To raise awareness of the increase in eating disorders and body-shaming, activist artists like Zhang Qinwen have spoken out. In an interview with AFP, Qinwen recalled her experience growing up in China and how the internet resulted in her weighing just 28 kgs before she ended up in intensive care. “I was simply affected by the internet and had low self-esteem back then,” she admitted. “I thought I was not perfect enough.”
It was a watershed moment for Qinwen, who now works as a body-positive activist and curated China’s first exhibition on eating disorders last year in the Shanghai Himalaya Art Museum. The exhibition featured 28 young artists who told a stark story of being raised in a culture of self-objectification, food consumption and unattainable standards of beauty through a series of installations, paintings, photographs and poems.
Also last year, the lingerie brand NEIWAI made headlines when it launched a body-positive advertising campaign, No Body is Nobody, ahead of International Women’s Day. The brand’s diverse sizing stood out among Chinese retailers, which tend to carry items only in limited smaller sizes. Forward-thinking campaigns such as these may still be rare in China, but they reflect a demand for the diversification of sizing.
The quest for perfection is clearly causing irreparable damage – physically and mentally – among young women in China. Still, thanks to the rise of new consumer trends such as these and messages of body inclusivity, the canons of beauty could be ever-slowly shifting.