Think of body image in China and most will recall a viral phenomenon two years ago in which young Chinese women compared their tiny waists to an A4 piece of paper. The social media contests drew raised eyebrows from Western and Chinese observers concerned about body shaming, but in mainstream media, China’s traditional beauty standards barely wavered.
Meanwhile, countless women struggled not only to find clothes that made them feel beautiful, but also to find body-positive role models.
Now a handful of confident international fashion influencers are determined to give plus-sized women in China a voice. Kiu, a Hong Kong native based in Shanghai, is one such influencer, who knows that shopping in China’s fast-fashion stores – bursting with extra-small clothes – can be no less than challenging. She started her Kiu Plus vlog in 2018 to help plus-sized viewers confidently navigate this arena, and the societal pressure to be thin.
Her posts on WeChat, China’s biggest instant messaging platform, and Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform, range from travel experiences and food reviews to trying on purchases from online shopping website Taobao, Uniqlo, Zara, and other retailers. Each video is set to pump-up pop music, showing her confidently modelling her outfits in the dressing room, and linking to each garment in the post.
Comments on her posts are overwhelmingly positive, with some affirming the difficulty they face shopping for clothes.
Blogs like Kiu Plus are fairly rare in China, but it is one example of a move, for now slight, towards acceptance of different body types in a nation that, contrary to its stereotypes, is statistically less thin than it was 30 years ago. In the last 12 months there was Wang Ju, the unlikely “stout” contestant who made it into the top 22 on hit reality talent show Produce 101, and Japanese comedienne and plus-sized entertainer Naomi Watanabe, who performed for the first time at online marketplace Tmall’s Singles’ Day television gala in November. (Taobao and Tmall are operated by Alibaba, owner of the South China Morning Post.)
Fashion brands are starting to recognise the need for diverse representation as demand grows from Chinese e-commerce sites for plus-sized models – though even they aren’t immune to requests to lose weight.
In her videos, Kiu exudes self-esteem. She addresses viewers’ concerns about her body type in a question-and-answer video, telling fans: “Confidence is not something other people give you, it comes from inside. Don’t pay attention to anything else. Just wear whatever you want to wear.”
Her message is one that plus-size brands in China don’t always echo, said Scarlett Hao, a fashion influencer based in New York.
“If you look at Taobao, or some of the plus-sized social media platforms in China, all of their content and ‘fashion tips’ are trying to make bigger girls look thinner,” Hao says. “Losing weight is not a fashion tip. If they keep doing it this way, the market will never be ready for plus-size and curvy girls because they keep teaching them to hide their fat or not be themselves. This is never going to work in the long run.”
Hao started her Instagram account as a hobby three years ago, a passion that evolved after an experience at New York Fashion Week. “I was so excited for my very first fashion week, but nobody was taking my street style photo even though I thought I was dressed really cool. …
“Finally when I told a photographer I was Chinese, he was like, ‘There’s no way you are Asian!’ I was like, what do you mean? And he is like, ‘You are too curvy for an Asian woman.’”
After that, Hao was determined to provide Asian representation in an industry that didn’t have much. “I wanted to tell them I am Chinese, but I can look any way I want,” she says.
Hao, who is from prosperous Shandong province in eastern China, recently opened accounts on Weibo and Xiaohongshu, a social media and e-commerce platform, to expand her message from the United States to China. But she admits it’s a challenging market, both for influencers and plus-size brands.
Few global plus-size brands have any presence in China, and while there are numerous reasons for this, Hao thinks one of the bigger explanations lies in mindsets.
“Even a woman with the financial ability to shop for expensive clothing will want to use the money to lose weight first,” she says. “If she doesn’t even think she deserves to wear cute clothes, then she would never buy plus-size, even if it’s offered to her, because she doesn’t think she looks good in her size.
“She wants to look good in a size two in that dress, not in size 20. That’s a problem.”
Even in more advanced markets like the US, changes in the plus-size arena are only just gaining momentum. There, brands are beginning to listen to demand; J. Crew announced in November it would be launching its second collaboration with Universal Standard to offer extended sizes up to 32, while plus-size digital retailer Eloquii was bought by Walmart to expand the store chain’s online fashion offerings.
In the high-end sphere, which has historically steered away from plus-size fashion, designers such as Jason Wu and Teresa Maccapani Missoni have collaborated on plus-size collections with Eloquii.
“Representation matters. More and more brands and designers are recognising this,” say Erin Cavanaugh and Yi Zhou, the founders of US-based plus-size fashion brand See Rose Go.
“If you look at the US market right now, it’s at the height of conversation around body positivity, diversity and inclusivity, and that’s what the market is ready for and the consumer demands it,” Zhou says. “It’s also now socially expected from brands to take that inclusivity and size diversity seriously as a business opportunity.”
See Rose Go was founded in 2017 by Cavanaugh and Zhou, who together have 30 years of experience in the global fashion industry at brands such as Nike, Converse, and American Eagle. They strive to provide curvy women the designer quality, style, and innovation that mainstream plus-size brands don’t offer, by listening to consumers and addressing their desire for well-made, modern clothing.
Their goal is to eventually take their brand global, but before expanding into markets like China, they want to get closer to the communities of plus-sized women, listen and cater to their needs.
“Eventually the trends you see in the US will be found in China too,” Zhou says. “The world has become much smaller, so similar effects will eventually happen in Asia, not just in China.”
Cavanaugh and Zhou emphasise that if the plus-size community is not seeing representation it needs to “create the content we want to see”.
“It is up to us to support brands and those delivering fashion, messaging and content included in this mission,” they told the Post in an email. “We can already see this movement in Asia, and specifically China, evolving from the desire for authenticity.”
As Hao works on her own growth and building her personal brand, she remains cautiously optimistic about sharing her message and building a bridge between fashion brands in the US and plus-size Chinese consumers.
“I definitely think the [Chinese] audience is ready for these new thoughts and new ideas,” Hao says. “But if a plus-size brand enters the market, are they going to buy the clothes? I’m not 100 per cent sure about that yet.”