Are women in China free to wear whatever they want? This was the question being asked on the Chinese internet last week after an online magazine claimed they were not. The article – which has now been taken down by censors – was based on the examples of two actresses who were shamed online for wearing low-cut outfits and gaining small amounts of weight.
“No matter what kind of shape or skin colour a woman has, she should be able to decide what to wear freely. She should not be restricted or limited by others, nor should she be subject to any form of evaluation,” opined the article, written by the unusually named zimeiti Number 3 Ticket Checker.
Psychologists in China have long argued that local perceptions of beauty are unrealistic, leading to high levels of body-dissatisfaction in young Chinese women and, increasingly, in young men as well.
The ideal for women – as perpetuated by TV dramas and adverts – is double-fold eyelids and big eyes, a V-shaped jaw line, porcelain white skin, a narrow nose with a high bridge, a small waist and slender legs, and a soft, non-muscular, physique.
Because of the growing cultural influence of computer games and Japanese anime in recent years, larger breasts have also crept onto the notional list.
It’s not uncommon too for job ads in China to specify how tall female applicants should be, or what they should weigh.
But what does this have to do with clothes? After all, in the truest sense of the word, most Chinese women are indeed free to wear what they want. As one angry response to the Number 3 Ticket Checker article went: “China has no laws on what women should wear… As long as you aren’t naked, the police won’t bother you.”
The debate was initially sparked by responses to a photo of Reyizha Alimjan – a star of the hit drama The Longest Day in Chang’an (see WiC460). The image attracted 320 million views and led to a torrent of criticism of her low-cut top, including disparaging remarks that she was “too fat” to wear such revealing clothes. Images of a second actress – Ma Sichun (see WiC387), wearing a white dress derided as “exhibitionist” – got 240 million views and attracted similar weight-related rebukes, mostly from women.
Initially Alimjan – who is Kazakh by ethnicity – took to Sina Weibo to apologise for being out of shape. Later she posted a more ‘body-positive’ message calling on girls to “be yourself and love yourself”.
Some women posted in support that they feel they get much more scrutiny over their clothes than men. Yet it was mainly women who criticised the actresses’ looks. Men seemed to take a lot more umbrage at the online article that argued that Chinese women don’t have freedom to wear that they want. The debate then morphed into a defence of freedom of speech. “This is the problem with feminism. They say they want human rights but actually they want the power to stop people expressing their opinions,” complained another contributor.
“If you exercise the freedom to dress how you want, you must bear the consequences. Others have the right to evaluate your clothes and choose how to treat you accordingly,” claimed another.
Feminists retorted that China is still a deeply patriarchal society in which woman are primarily evaluated on their looks – especially by potential husbands and their families and by employers.
This has led to more pressure to have plastic surgery – with a boom in teenagers paying for cosmetic procedures stirring special concerns (see WiC441).
Gengmei, an app that focuses on plastic surgery, calculates that the Chinese spent $73.4 billion on cosmetic enhancements in 2018 alone.
One example of just how petite young Chinese women are expected to be is the bizarre series of challenges that swept social media in 2016. In one trend, women had to prove their waists could be obscured by a piece of A4 paper held vertically. In another, photos were posted showing their knees, placed together, were no wider than an iPhone 6 in horizontal position. n
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