March 8, International Women’s Day. China’s urban woman in 2021 challenges society’s traditional narrative. Time to tune in on the boundary-breaking tone she thinks (fashion) brands can set to create a groundswell of support for a new notion of empowerment. Hear her!
“Women hold up half the sky,” once said Ma. We all remember that one.
China’s girl POW is now! From imperial repression to the “revered” unisex Mao getup of yonder to exploring and embracing their feminine power (suit), thank you Roaring Twenties 2.0, for welcoming a generation of single, independent, confident Chinese women.
As China’s society transforms, its women are overhauling gender lines, incomes, roles, and responsibilities — as well as their relationships with (fashion) brands, trends, and consumption. Nevertheless, when talking about female empowerment, style and International Women’s Day 2021, question remains…
What do women want to hear?
The Roaring Twenties 2.0
The year 2020 saw multiple successful Chinese lioness-lionizing underwear campaigns including national label NEIWAI’s “No Body is Nobody” and Victoria’s Secret “What is Sexy?” starring actress Zhou Dongyu as the brand’s new ambassador for China. Both examples arguably encourage the idea of Chinese women accentuating their own takes on femininity and individual qualities, instead of supporting the previously pushed-forward ideal of big breasts as a woman’s ultimate prerequisite for bodily poise.
The year 2020 saw two hit series-TV drama “Nothing but Thirty”(三十而已) and reality show “Sisters Who Make Waves” (乘风破浪的姐姐). Both focus on a similar group: women close to or just above 30, an age when, many in China believe, women enter a new stage of life. “Nothing but Thirty” has contributed to about 150 hotly discussed topics on Weibo. Then, on November 17, Tencent’s new female monologue-centered TV show hit the charts in the form of “Hear Her”(听见她说) headed up by famous actress Vicki Zhao, spark viral debates online, sending the #bodyimageanxiety# tag to the top of social media platform Sina Weibo’s trending topics with 540 million views in just over 24 hours.
The year 2020 saw heated discussions over female appearance, beauty standards and body anxiety making waves on Chinese social media. “Now I appreciate my look at that time, and I know it’s not replicable,” Zhao herself chimed in, “I hope everyone can build up their inner strength. Acknowledge your flaws — they are also attractive.”
So mirror, mirror on the wall, in 2021, who’s the biggest boss of them all?
May the Female Force Be with You
International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the historical, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also is a day of action in support of acting against gender inequality around the world. For China specifically, Women’s Day has become somewhat of a Valentine’s Day and Mother’ s Day combo. To make you feel the love. To make you feel like a queen. To make you feel like a new power woman.
In China, particularly, gains in economic power have resulted in an overhaul of the country’s business landscape by a new generation of ambitious and trailblazing women.
In a bid to scratch the surface and find out what really is on the mind of China’s fashion slash beauty aficionada in the face of Women’s Day, what it is they want out of fashion and all things trendy and trending, we took some time out with a streak of Chinese first- and second-tier women between the ages of 24 and 42, both single and married, all active (full-time) in the fashion, lifestyle, and beauty industries.
“Free Britney” movement not included. As it turns out, “the the evolution of 三八节 in China in China is not one dead-set against men,” accessories designer Meiyi Yang tells us, “Just like feminism is not a development of battling the opposite sex.” Feminism for Chinese women in the Roaring Twenties 2.0 is about creating a culture that will pursue all their potential values and virtues, instead of making one group (i.e. “men”) feel under the threat of persecution.
With the need to eliminate chauvinistic ideas that hinder the capabilities of the women, many feel “the time has now come to give the women the opportunity to further explore those fields that have been dominated by men for as long as they can remember,” founder of Atelier LT Lily Teng adds. “More and more Chinese women have realized their own value and made a great leap forward in thought. Nowadays, Chinese women have completely broken away from the feudal era in the old society when men were superior to women. They are respected, accepted, more independent and able to take charge; the pursuit of career success is no longer the exclusive right of men.” Summing up, the female body of work is no longer limited to the familial sphere and balancing the daily trots and tots has become the new normal.
More space to obtain equality in terms of career development, more power to break more rules and more protection against misogynistic ideas.
The women of China in 2021 want more.
Aspiration to Inspiration
Yet the key question burns even brighter… What can give a brand or trend that edge, that pizzazz, that power, to enter the female consumer’s mind and stay on it?
China’s traditional views on marriage, relationships and sexuality are changing. Welcoming a generation of single, independent, confident Chinese women, exploring, and embracing their feminine powers. Photographer Siren Song tells us, “Most of today’s Chinese women have begun to face everything independently and confidently, the traditional lines an ‘confines’ of gender are increasingly blurred, and they are maintaining a new balance in their working lives, so self-confidence, nature, health and fashion are the direction that Chinese women will pursue in the future.”
As such, discussions on Sina Weibo — China’s version of Twitter — have homed in on the controversy of blurring masculinity and femininity within Chinese fashion — aka the love for genderless swag (⽆性别穿搭). While some are refusing to get behind the trend, others support it as a sign of gender equality.
And with these new aspirations come new inspirations.
Wan Qian, star of “Sisters Who Make Waves,” represents the “face of mengmei style” (猛妹风) for her signature wardrobe of oversized men’s suits. The style is a lighting a torch and boldly walking the tightrope for a society of women in pursuit of more powerful femininity. The nation’s Gen Zs have shown an interest in fashion as a medium for female empowerment since the early 2010s, and mengmei style fits that passion.
Mainstream Chinese society is starting to show tolerance for forward-thinking self-expression, thanks to increasing visibility via internet culture. Therefore, mengmei style remains an interesting trend for brands to watch.
Today’s younger Chinese consumers have greater mental and physical self-awareness, which is relevant to the development of social media. The new generations of KOLs at large are quite vocal about body positivity and women’s empowerment, and that has significantly shaped Chinese consumers’ preferences and perceptions. Minor retail detail: in July 2020, Taobao’s top trending fashion keyword was “mengmei style.” Making waves, indeed.
Psychology aficionada Lio He takes the above newfound consumer perspective one step further, adding, “Brands need to stop seeing Chinese women customers as ATMs or plain stupid. Be honest and represent value. This goes in line with young people across the world, they want a brand that their value they can vibe with, and I do mean authentic value.”
I’m not a Boss B*tch; I’m a Boss, B*tch
Pardon the B-word, ‘Tcomes from a good place. As more and more Chinese females focus on self-empowerment and self-expression, campaigns and slogans that favor the male-gaze-oriented aesthetics are being called out by Chinese netizens. Meanwhile, further inspired by the female medical workers who were fighting the COVID-19 virus on the frontlines during the outbreak in early 2020, Chinese society is calling for more respect and understanding for all women.
Influencer Scarlett Hao is an ambassador for the curvy Asian woman active within the fashion industry. Hers is the Business of Big Beautiful Branding. Hao tells yours truly, she has “always found [herself] of the slightly bigger end of the size tagging. No matter how few braised beef slices or crushed garlic-y cucumber squares I ate, 10 kg down the line… The curves were still there. Enough, I said. The time had come for a complete overhaul, taking the negative thoughts, and turning them into positive assets of self-empowerment.” Hao has embraced her looks, from head to toe, backed up by a little Chinese cultural fact we like to call “the woman rules the roost.”
Gu Leilei, founder of plus-size brand AB ALEI, too, wants to create a new message of curvy acceptance and throw haters a fashion curveball. Her slogan? Extra-large is extra beauty. In Gu’s vision, women need to embrace their inner boss, “It is about re-shaping and re-writing the bodily narrative, transforming a ‘weakness’ into strength, confidence, and an inspiration to others. It is about acceptance. Self-acceptance.”
Friend, freelance stylist and creative director Li Yang wraps it up by throwing in her two mao on Gu’s words, “For me, equal rights and women empowerment is where our society is heading towards silently. Another thing is the ability to appreciate and enjoy oneself as a confident woman.”
Starting with the post-80s, moving towards the Gen Zs, Chinese women are now more self-sufficient and independent than ever before, with a movement of confident women embracing and expanding their full being is beginning to spread across the nation’s first- and second-tier cities and quickly flowing into the urban outskirts.
So what do they want to hear? Nothing.
They want to be heard.
Featured image: “Sisters Who Make Waves,” a Mango TV production
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