Last week, lingerie company Victoria’s Secret received a wave of positive press in China for naming Zhou Dongyu its newest brand ambassador. Zhou is a popular and talented actress, but willowier than the usual Victoria’s Secret model — something the beleaguered brand clumsily tried to play up in its marketing materials. “I define sexiness as being comfortable, nonconformist, and natural,” Zhou said in a promotional video. “It should be we (women) who define sexiness, not we who are defined.”
In recent years, lingerie brands have begun courting progressive consumers by rebranding themselves as inclusive and welcoming of racial and physical diversity. But in this case, at least, the plaudits are problematic: Zhou is known in China as a standard-bearer for the “pale, slim, and youthful” aesthetic, or bai shou you. Director Zhang Yimou, who helmed Zhou’s first film, once described her as “almost like a sheet of paper,” and her youthful complexion has allowed the 28-year-old to keep landing roles as high schoolers, even as recently as last year.
In short, she is the epitome of a beauty ideal that Chinese women — and young women in particular — have been fixated on for years, but which remains unrepresentative and unattainable for most. Victoria’s Secret has been criticized for shaming non-supermodel body types, but hiring Zhou as a brand ambassador neither challenges China’s prevailing beauty norms nor promotes body positivity. Her looks are just the flip side of the same coin.
Zhou Dongyu’s ads for Victoria’s Secret, published on April 2020. From Victoria’s Secret’s website
Although Chinese perceptions of the ideal body type have shifted in recent years, rigid popular attitudes still restrain young women from appreciating their own diverse bodies. Take singer Wang Ju, for example. Less than two years ago, Wang was a top contestant on the reality show “Produce 101,” where her “unique” looks — thick legs, tan skin, freckles — stood out in a pack of wan faces and slim thighs. Dubbed “China’s Beyonce,” Wang’s surging popularity triggered an online debate about the country’s beauty norms, but also made her a target for online bullies mocking her for being too chubby and, at 25, too old.
Unfortunately, her popularity proved a flash in the pan. Today it’s confined to her cult-like fan group, many of them members of China’s LGBT community. Her meteoric rise also didn’t help her win “Produce 101,” nor the girl group slot it promised. Despite being one of the show’s most talented performers, she ended up losing out to her “pale, slim, and youthful” rivals.
Wang Ju (right) performs onstage during filming for “Produce 101” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 2018. Chen Zhongqiu/People Visual
More broadly, the record of young Chinese women embracing diverse beauty standards is dubious. Even ostensibly independent or casual looks like “frigid fashion” — characterized by basic colors, neutral or unisex designs, and loose-fitting clothing — usually require a leaner body, lanky legs, and well-shaped collarbones to pull off. The same is true of alternative styles like “girlboss fashion,” “butch fashion,” or “Euro-American style,” which hardly challenge beauty norms, however much they’re marketed as promoting female empowerment. The grim reality is that size inclusivity has never received serious social attention in China.
If anything, stigmas against nonstandard body shapes are relentlessly reproduced by the country’s consumerism-driven social media networks. On the immensely popular video app Douyin, known outside of China as TikTok, the default face filter makes a user’s chin sharper, eyes bigger, and skin porcelain-white. Its use is ubiquitous to the point that “turning off the filter” has become an act of bravery and authenticity.
Outside of the virtual realm, China is the second-largest market for cosmetic products and the largest market for plastic surgery in the world. The normalization and increasing affordability of cosmetic procedures has created more obstacles toward body acceptance. According to a 2019 white paper published by China’s largest online platform for plastic surgery information, liposuction is the most popular non-facial procedure, and makes up a higher percentage of China’s medical consumption than it does in the United States.
Chinese women’s pursuit of a particular physique reflects the stereotype-heavy gender culture of many workplaces. Weight discrimination and body shaming are prevalent on the job market. Tech firm Alibaba once advertised a job for women with “recognizably good looks” to help “motivate” its male coders. Some recruitment ads are even less subtle: One 2018 research report found an ad for train conductors that required female applicants be between 1.62 and 1.73 meters tall and weigh less than 65 kilograms.
In a consumerist society in which there’s little chance of enacting profound change in its gender culture, it’s easy for companies to capitalize on women’s desire for independence or greater self-esteem by paying lip service to the idea of redefining femininity or sexiness. Victoria’s Secret is no exception. Indeed, many netizens have praised Zhou’s deal with the company as a breath of fresh air.
But we should remember that its motivations were neither revolutionary nor progressive. The nexus of capital, media, and mass culture continues to contort countless young Chinese women’s understandings of themselves, their beauty, and their potential. Meaningful change will take painstaking efforts, from encouraging size-inclusive design to saying “no” to discrimination in the workplace. There’s a long way to go.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Actress Zhou Dongyu poses on the red carpet at the FIRST International Film Festival in Xining, Qinghai province, July 28, 2019. Luo Heng/IC)