hunger binge

A Thin Fad Is Becoming Life-Threatening for Chinese Women

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Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.

SHANGHAI — Lou Wenjun, a 26-year-old office worker from central China, compared her body to a pear: The upper half was fine, but the lower half—her thighs and calves—was too fat. She was 165 cm tall and weighed 55 kg—a disappointment, according to the fashion influencers she followed. “Good girls don’t exceed 50 kg,” a popular saying went.

Lou wanted to be a good girl, so when COVID-19 lockdowns trapped her at her home in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou in early 2020, she started working toward that goal.

She ate two meals daily, did workouts by German fitness star Pamela Reif for as long as three hours a day, and stepped on her scale every time she visited the bathroom. As she shedded pounds, her mother praised her for getting prettier, while colleagues marveled at her self-control. Three months later, Lou achieved 50 kg.

Then she set a new goal: 47.5 kg.

“For girls, there is no such thing as too skinny,” she said during an interview with VICE World News. “You always want to get thinner. It is the beauty standard of this day.” 

While a movement for acceptance of different types of bodies is gaining traction in parts of the world, being thin is still an unchallenged standard for female attractiveness in much of East Asia, where women have been found to be most eager to lose weight. 

In China, the criteria of a beautiful woman is summed up in popular slang as “white, young, and thin.” The aesthetics are constantly conveyed to millions of young consumers by the entertainment and fashion industries, with scarce discussions devoted to the potential harm they cause. On social media, content about food, thin bodies, and weight-loss competes for women’s attention, driving many into anxiety, depression, and life-threatening eating disorders.

The ultra-thin ideal is all over the internet. Short-video apps come with filters that make a person’s face smaller and legs unrealistically thinner. Celebrities and influencers take part in social media challenges showing off their bodies, like measuring their waists against an A4 paper, putting coins in their collarbones, and trying on children’s clothes

Algorithms feed young women with endless weight-loss slogans and dieting tips. Lou kept reading messages like “Sleeping with hunger is the beginning of a beautiful life” and “How do you take control of your life if you cannot control your weight?” on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

“It’s not that they are too small, it’s me being too large.”

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, set off a social media craze globally for creating an exclusive club of slender women who could fit into its extra-small clothes. In China, they’re called “BM girls.”

An investigation into Brandy Melville’s North American business by the news outlet Insider this month found a troubling pattern of discrimination against people who were not young, thin, and white. The company did not respond to VICE World News’ requests for comment.

The first Brandy Melville store in China, which opened in 2019 in downtown Shanghai, was packed on a recent Saturday morning with young women, many in belly shirts, browsing the retro, California-style tank tops and skirts that looked like children’s clothes. 

Li Fan, a tourist from nearby Jiangsu province, had come to pay a pilgrimage visit to the store with her suitcase. The 25-year-old had seen pictures of women dressed in BM clothes on her social feeds, and she fell in love with chunyu style, a Chinese fashion buzzword that means “innocent and sexy.” 

Li didn’t end up buying anything on the day. The clothes did not fit, she said. “It’s not that they are too small, it’s me being too large.”

She did, however, make up her mind to lose more weight. Li was 158 cm and 50 kg. She said 45 kg would be ideal. “The other girls are all so thin,” she said. “It’s very motivational.”

On the microblogging site Weibo, topics marveling at how thin female celebrities are regularly make it to the trending list. Some of the recent hot topics include “Dilraba’s Waist,” “Tang Yan’s legs,” “Song Zuer’s waist-to-butt ratio,” and “Gina’s seventh month pregnancy.” The subject in the last one, pianist Gina Alice, became the talk of the internet for staying thin throughout her pregnancy.

Celebrities’ diets are often viral topics as well. An actress filmed a tutorial on making bread-free sandwiches. Another posted about eating grapefruit as her sole source of carbs, and shedding 3 kg in 10 days. An actor showed in his vlog how to use oil-absorbing sheets to get rid of the fat floating in a bowl of noodle soup. 

“Media has played a major role in promoting the thin body ideal and encouraging women into self-objectification,” said Jinbo He, a researcher on body image and eating disorders with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. “But the public health authorities and the media industry are not yet aware of the harm this is causing.” 

He said the thin ideal was introduced to China from the West through industrialization. Being thin was regarded as a sign of malnutrition during China’s impoverished years. Scholars have suggested that with economic development, the thin ideal that first became popular in the West became widely adopted in Asia through various cultural and consumer products. The pressure could be further exacerbated by patriarchal, collectivist traditions that require women to conform to popular beauty standards. 

In the past decade, thanks to the rise of social media, the narrow definition of female attractiveness is making an impact on a wider population in China, including children and rural residents.

Last year, the Brandy Melville craze reached Wang Yiting, a college student in the eastern province of Zhejiang, through Douyin and Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-like site popular with young women. Like many other BM followers, Wang felt she was too fat for the beloved brand. 

Wang was 166 cm tall and weighed 50 kg. The World Health Organization would call her underweight, but according to a widely-shared chart showing the heigh-weight combination of #BMGirls, she weighed 3 kg too much to fit into Brandy Melville clothes.

Wang first started losing weight in high school, where female students would skip dinner and take on “detox” diets. In college, her roommates were thin women who weighed themselves every day to stay fit. One told Wang her tummy looked like that of a pregnant woman. 

This time, Wang pushed herself harder by restricting her daily calorie intake at 800 calories. But occasional binge-eating and the pressure to lose weight caused her great anxiety. She would stare at other women on the streets and wonder why she couldn’t be that thin. Months later, she was diagnosed with anorexia.

“For girls, there is no such thing as too skinny.”

The 21-year-old is now being treated for depression and eating disorders, but she said it was difficult to stop staring at others’ thinner legs and feeling jealous. “The reality is everyone is losing weight,” she told VICE World News. “The ‘white, young, thin’ ideal has already been written in my bones.”

Body-image dissatisfaction has become a common experience for the entire young generation in China, especially women. A 2018 study conducted among primary school students in Guangzhou found that 78 percent of the children aged 8-12 were unhappy with their bodies. Among those with healthy weights, more boys perceived themselves as too thin, whereas more girls perceived themselves as too heavy.

According to another survey conducted among female university students in 2016 and 2017, 73 percent of the respondents said they had taken action to lose weight in the past six months….

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