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. More than half of the underweight respondents wanted to become thinner.
Lou followed a similar path. After getting to 47.5 kg, she kept going at it.
But unbeknownst to her family and friends, her ultra-strict diet had led to bulimia. She became unable to control herself when she started snacking. She once ate a bucket of 1.1 kg mixed nuts in one go. Another time, she ate almost an entire eight-inch tiramisu cake from Costco. She would become too full to even stand up.
Binge-eating gave her intense guilt and shame. Afterward, she would try to burn the unwanted calories by fasting, over-exercising, and putting even stricter control over her diet. She downloaded a fitness app, and began recording the calorie intake from every single thing she put into her mouth. Once, Lou had a mental breakdown because her mother mistakenly put two extra pieces of jelly, which carried less than 10 calories, into the meal she’d carefully designed for herself.
In the summer of 2020, Lou weighed 46 kg. She felt weak and stopped getting her period. All this time, no one realized there was anything wrong with her. Although her parents did warn her against getting too thin, most people thought she was just a thin woman who could at times eat a lot.
“In the eyes of ordinary people, how would anyone get an eating disease?” she said.
Eating disorders have for a long time been regarded as a Western phenomenon, with famous people like Princess Diana, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga going public with their own struggles.
In China, few of the extremely thin celebrities have spoken out about the mental and physical toll of weight control. Although tens of millions are estimated to be struggling with eating disorders, according to Professor He, only two clinics, in Beijing and Shanghai, are dedicated to treating them.
The Shanghai Mental Health Center saw the number of cases rising from one in 2002 to more than 2,700 in 2019, according to a Chinese Newsweek report. But most other patients are prevented from seeking professional help by low awareness and a strong stigma around mental health issues.
The women who have spoken out about their experiences online say they’ve received a flood of messages from people with similar experiences of dieting, binge-eating, purging, shame, and depression. As knowledge about eating disorders spreads online, more people are joining the community.
Zhang Qinwen, a 25-year-old woman being treated for bulimia, became an icon in the community after publishing a short documentary about her struggles with weight loss and eating disorders. She said she received an overwhelming amount of calls for help from mostly female patients, including some primary school students.
In June, she put up an exhibition in Shanghai for eating disorder survivors to tell their stories through artwork. One of them offered an oil painting of a candy. “I don’t remember a time when I could eat a whole candy without worrying,” the artist wrote. “I want to go back to my childhood and have a good one.”
Globally, businesses have come under pressure for promoting thin bodies and diets. Instagram has been accused of exacerbating teen girls’ body image issues and leading to eating disorders, according to a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal. Facing criticism, Victoria’s Secret launched a rebranding campaign this year to include models of varying shapes and sizes, while Pinterest became the first major social media platform to ban all weight-loss adverts.
In China, the rising feminist voices online are also pushing back against the “white, young, thin“ aesthetic. An A-list actress was forced to apologize for doing a dangerous “cartoon waist” challenge. Film posters featuring an entire cast of thin women have come under attacks. At the hit stand-up comedy show The Roast last year, twin comedians Yan Yi and Yan Yue joked that Brandy Melville should just put up small-sized electric fences at its doors to block people with regular bodies from entering.
But so far, thin bodies still dominate mainstream media. In May, Brandy Melville opened its second Chinese store, in Beijing’s trendy Sanlitun district. It was so packed that customers waited in long lines to enter the fitting room, according to social media posts.
Similar to the Brandy Melville scene in America, getting hired by the company is in itself a badge of honor. The Chinese employees, most of them young, thin, and pale, post about their daily work at the stores and have become #BMstyle influencers themselves.
To Lou, who managed to quit binge-eating in late 2020, the Brandy Melville content only reminded her of her past struggles with eating disorders. “We know how much effort we once made to get thinner,” she said. “We know how much pain it took for us to get out of it.”
Lou deleted her calorie-counting apps and stopped weighing herself every day. On her own Xiaohongshu page, she marked herself as a bulimia survivor and pledged to never start a weight-loss attempt ever again as a reminder to others.
But she found it impossible to counter the beauty industry and the ubiquitous diet culture that are constantly making women feel they’re overweight. “Girls are judging themselves by their body shapes,” Lou said. “Every day there are new people jumping into this trap.”
If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, you can contact the helpline of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237, or visit their site. You can also live chat with a volunteer via Facebook Messenger, and text 'NED!' to 741741 for crisis support 24/7.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.