Women push against 'body shaming'
Moves challenge stereotypical notions regarding femininity and image.
Zhang Haifei said she had a "mental breakdown" when she walked onto a subway train. She burst into tears and tried to squeeze herself as far as possible into the alcove framing the door.
The trip was no different from any other commute during her week, except it was the first time Zhang had worn a dress with straps in public. As she considers herself an "oversized female", she said she felt "naked" under the public gaze.
The experience came in 2018 as Zhang undertook a challenge called "Oversized Girl Trying a Dress with Straps for the First Time in her Life" for a media company in Beijing.
At a height of 171 centimeters and weighing 160 kilograms, she usually preferred baggy, comfortable tops that covered her "big" arms.
Zhang undertook the challenge voluntarily as it was one of several content ideas for the company, where she was doing an internship. She was also hoping to speak on behalf of larger, body-conscious women.
After browsing in several clothes shops, she and a friend finally opted for a yellow floral dress with straps on the shoulders and an open area around the waist.
"I was reluctant at first because it was totally different from my normal style of dress. After trying the dress on, the more I looked at it, the prettier I found it, but I still felt apprehensive about wearing it outside of the fitting room," the 25-year-old recalled.
The discomfort grew as she and her friend walked toward the subway station. "I felt everyone was staring at me and my big thick arms," she said. The "breakdown" occurred the moment she stepped onto the train.
"The space felt very confined. When I walked in, everyone was looking at me, which made me suddenly feel as though I was doing something wrong. My upper body was too fat, making me too conspicuous," she said.
Zhang grew up in Jiangsu province. At school, she was always relatively chubbier than most of her peers and her short hair plus an extrovert personality made her the class "tomboy".
"Fei", the second syllable of her given name, is a homophone of the Mandarin word for "fat", which provided good material for the boys to come up with the uncomplimentary nickname "Sister Fat".
The constant teasing saw Zhang develop feelings of low self-esteem that accompanied her until she graduated from university and moved to Beijing in 2018.
"I used to walk with my head down at university. I also pulled my hair down because I wanted to cover my face," she recalled.
Societal norms in China have long touted a skinny body shape as desirable, with celebrities and trends on social media reinforcing the notion, helping to lead to approval of a "thin and pale" body image aesthetic.
Female pop stars, especially those influenced by K-pop girl groups, are lauded by their fans for being "self-disciplined" and having long, lean legs and small waists.
This can put pressure on young women, pushing them to take an almost punitive approach to losing weight.
Tan Xiaoyue, a 22-year-old postgraduate student at Tsinghua University in Beijing, was influenced by such an environment.
When she began a strict diet during her senior year at high school, she said most of the girls in her class were also "starving" themselves, so it was seen as normal.
At 48 kg and 161 centimeters, Tan felt she was not thin enough, despite body mass index measurements stating that the normal weight for a woman of her stature is 47.95 kg to 64.78 kg.
She was mocked by male classmates, who called her "fatty" and asked "How can you look even bigger than me?" That prompted her to lose weight.
She allowed herself a normal breakfast, but only a single egg or corncob for lunch and no dinner.
She also became an exercise fanatic, forcing herself to work out every day.
Six months later, when she entered university as a freshman, her weight had dropped to 39.5 kg and she enjoyed "admiring" her protruding ribs in the mirror.
The starvation diet quickly backfired, and Tan developed bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by food binges followed by self-induced vomiting as a "purge".
To offset the guilt of overeating, she decided to work out even more, but that did not prevent her weight from rising to 61 kg.
When the frequent binge eating began to affect her mental health, Tan finally realized she was sick and went to see a doctor.
After receiving treatment, she said she can now maintain a healthy relationship with food and has returned to her normal weight of 48 kg.
Even so, she still feels insecure about her body image sometimes.
"I don't have a pretty face, and I just think things will be worse if I don't have a dainty body," she said, adding that the insecurity partly stems from caring too much about other people's opinions.
To convince women that they shouldn't be bothered by outside voices, Zhang's employer－an independent social media channel founded by a former employee of the company where she interned－recently released a video featuring her trying a range of physical activities, including strength training, CrossFit training and dancing.
The activities were a breakthrough for Zhang, who had always refused to go to a gym because she felt that tight leggings and a sports bra would reveal too much of her "ungainly" figure.
The video garnered more than 374,000 views and 1,000 comments on Weibo, a popular social media platform, with many people saying they related to Zhang's experience at the gym.
"On social media, there are lots of videos that either show pale, thin female celebrities or feature fitness influencers demonstrating how motivated and self-disciplined they are by working out every day," Zhang said.
"I think my video resonated with so many people because they saw something different from those key opinion leaders. They realized that there are people who are just like them, and who can speak for them. We need to be more tolerant and open minded, and we need to hear different voices."