With China’s most anticipated holiday of the year fast approaching, many young women will be treating the upcoming Spring Festival celebrations with as much trepidation as excitement. While criticism from relatives is as traditional as setting off fireworks in China, one overlooked aspect of dinner conversations up and down the country is the body-shaming culture that older generations of the family impose on their children and grandchildren.
As the owner of a plus-size boutique in Shanghai, it pains me to hear Chinese friends and acquaintances complaining about the stress and embarrassment caused by body-shaming from people who purport to care about them. One friend, Wu Lanlan, described how her preparation for going home consisted primarily of dieting, in order to avoid barbs from her mother and friends about her weight. An 11-year-old student I know from my teaching days — who asks only to be identified by her English name, Sherrie — describes how she insists on standing, not sitting, at her desk throughout class and refuses snacks offered by her friends during breaks — all to avoid “getting fat.”
In recent years, many Western countries have witnessed a concerted movement aimed at shifting public perceptions toward accepting plus-size women. China, however, has failed to fully embrace body positivity. Of course, media outlets in the United States — my home country — still frequently come under severe criticism from marginalized groups for their unfair representations of certain beauty standards, including those of plus-size people. However, the success of initiatives such as the #EffYourBeautyStandards Twitter campaign, launched by well-known plus-size model Tess Holliday, have stimulated conversation around the yawning gap between naturally occurring body types and the impossible standards demanded by the fashion industry.
I come across warped beauty ideals frequently in my boutique’s day-to-day operations. Moisturizers and skin creams are injected with skin-lightening agents to whiten women’s faces. A cursory search on Taobao, Alibaba’s Amazon-like marketplace, finds the internet replete with nostril-extenders. Clients say that they are considering plastic surgery to reduce the size of their noses or put an extra fold in their eyelids. Mobile phone apps offer users the chance to edit photos of themselves, enlarging and adding pigment to their eyes.
Complex beauty standards emerge from the above phenomena. On the one hand, pale skin, delicate facial features, and double-folded eyelids reflect traditional feminine aesthetics that have existed in China for centuries. On the other hand, expecting women to maintain ultra-slim figures and widen their eyes nod to beauty standards more traditionally seen in Western countries than in China. The ways that the country’s media pushes these ideals — whether through television, advertising, or other means — make the road to body acceptance in China particularly arduous.
Samantha Sibanda, a Beijing-based psychologist who focuses on body positivity and self-acceptance, describes many of her Chinese clients as “hard to reach.” In China, she says, there is a severe stigma against plus-size women that deems them unhealthy, regardless of the biological causes of their size and weight. In contrast, skinny women who drop below medically defined weight thresholds are still considered healthy, even if the causes of their slimness are not. These attitudes create a paradox whereby an underweight woman with an eating disorder is often considered healthier than a natural plus-size woman who regularly exercises.
A further obstacle to body acceptance, Sibanda says, is that ingrained social attitudes to beauty prevent her clients from making tangible progress after consultations. While it can be easy enough to come to terms with absurd beauty standards from the psychologist’s couch, many Chinese clients will still fall victim to social conditioning back at home — conditioning that emphasizes conformity to existing beauty standards over divergence from the norm.
Of course, China is not unique in privileging slim body types over fuller figures. The problem, however, lies in the extent to which slimness is seen as the only “good” body type. When societies conform too strictly to specific ideals of perfection, they shut themselves off from accepting the natural diversity of the human form. Instead of celebrating the people who make them up, such societies only heighten people’s feelings of inadequacy.
The key to a more body-positive future in China must come through education, says Sibanda. A teaching approach that depicts the characteristics of different groups as equally valuable cultural markers would shift the focus away from narrow ideals of perfection and onto diversity. By this definition, the varied shapes of East Asian eyes, the curliness of African hair, and the high-bridged noses of Caucasian Europeans become more —not less — worthy of celebration through the prism of difference.
There have been tentative first steps toward popularizing body positivity in China. A viral internet campaign in summer 2015 saw many women upload photographs of their unshaven armpits — a feminist statement that represented a pushback against conventional beauty standards. Chinese social media users also jumped on board with “no filter” selfies last year, a campaign that initially encouraged debate about notions of “real” beauty with its disregard for applying makeup.
Despite these campaigns, however, deep-seated beauty standards will take time to change — as evidenced by the “A4 waist” craze that saw Chinese women upload images of them holding pieces of A4 paper in front of their stomachs, comparing the paper’s width to their waist size. Having an informed conversation about what these campaigns tell us about our bodies, however, can encourage people to reflect on the physical and psychological damage caused by body-shaming, and hopefully bring about a deeper change in attitudes.
(Header image: A girl applies slimming oil to her stomach at a hotel in Shanghai, Aug. 1, 2015. Liu Xingzhe for Sixth Tone)