China the new breeding ground of body-shaming memes

By Caitlin Dewey

Actresses Yuan Shanshan (left) and Qi Wei posted photos of themselves on Weibo as part of the A4 Challenge.
Actresses Yuan Shanshan (left) and Qi Wei posted photos of themselves on Weibo as part of the A4 Challenge.

Internet memes can start anywhere and spread everywhere: That's exactly what makes them so wonderful.

But there has been a wave of disturbing body-shaming memes recently, and they all originate in the same place: Chinese social networks, such as Renren and Weibo.

There was the A4 Challenge, a call to prove one's waist was narrower than a standard sheet of A4 paper. The iPhone 6 knee, featuring photographs of young women's legs hidden by the 15cm screen. The underboob pen challenge, in which women hold writing utensils in the fold beneath their breasts. The belly button and collarbone challenges, both geared toward demonstrating the challenger's thinness.

The latest viral fad, called the 100 Yuan Challenge, involves photographing yourself as you wrap the 15cm bill around your wrist. There hasn't been a spate of body memes this bad since the era of the bikini bridge.

Like that meme, which originated in the United States, this latest batch has an obvious goal: to promote a body image that, for most women, is neither healthy nor attainable. But when we asked Marcella Szablewicz, a professor and researcher at Pace University who studies Chinese internet culture, she had a secondary theory: Perhaps the popularity of these memes is fuelled, to some extent, by class divides in the Chinese economy.

Szablewicz cautions that she hasn't actually studied this specific issue - this is just her loose hypothesis as someone who tracks the Chinese web. But she suspects that challenges such as the iPhone 6 Knee and 100 Yuan Wrist owe at least part of their virality to the Chinese internet's distaste for wealthy, ostentatious kids.

In China, the fuerdai and guanerdai - the children of the wealthy and of officials, respectively - are like their own class of viral internet villain. So fuerdai and guanerdai that flaunt their status are pretty much guaranteed to get a big reaction.

"Choosing to place an iPhone 6 over your knees is both a statement about body image and a statement about wealth," Szablewicz told the Washington Post by email. (In China, the phone costs about one-sixth of what the average private-sector worker makes per year.) In fact, even choosing thinness as the ideal body type has some economic connotations.

"By making being 'thin' into a sport and source of pride, they seem to me to be ignorant of China's recent history," Szablewicz said. "Given the famine of the Great Leap Forward, it used to be that being 'fat' was seen [as a] sign of prosperity and health (many older people will still tell you that you look fat and mean it to be a compliment). What these women are doing seems extravagant; by showing that they want to be thin they essentially also show that material wealth is no longer a serious concern."

While some academics and Chinese viewers may understand those subtexts, however, these memes have far more literal meanings in Europe and the US - where they're promptly snatched up by diet forums and Tumblr communities as goals, or "thinspiration". That sort of fad worries health advocates, who fear that body-shaming memes normalise eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviours. Multiple studies have linked adolescent internet use, of any kind, with low body-image. And just last month, a study published in the journal Social Media and Society found that women who look at a lot of fitness boards on Pinterest are far more likely to intend to "engage in extreme weight-loss behaviours" than women who aren't spending time with those sorts of posts.

"People with poor body image who are at risk or actively struggling with disordered eating tend to fixate on particular body parts; there is nothing new about those obsessions," Claire Mysko, the head of the National Eating Disorder Association, told the Post in 2014. "What is new is that coined terms like 'thigh gap' and 'bikini bridge' - and the news articles, images, hashtags and social media comparisons that come with them - have given those obsessions larger and more competitive platforms."

This latest spate of body-shaming memes only illustrates how large and influential those platforms can be: It now takes mere days for a craze begun on Weibo to reach everywhere from Windsor to Sydney.

- Washington Post - Bloomberg

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