Can Popular Second-Skin Athleisure Break Past Social Media Backlash In China?

Between fashion photoshoots and day-in-the-life styling, Weibo blogger @AvaFoo shares with her 3.5 million followers inside looks of her enviably active lifestyle — skateboarding, wake surfing, snowboarding, yoga as well as the athleisure outfits that come with it.

For Ava, an active daily lifestyle is “not an obligation, but rather a source of enjoyment and entertainment.” Though sportswear pieces like yoga clothes, leggings, and sports bras are standard garb for the KOL, she has recently started to incorporate athleisure pieces into everyday outfits; matching leggings or other second-skin items are now popping up in her “outfit of the day” posts. 

Fashion KOL @AvaFoo shares her workout looks with 3.5 million followers. Photo: Weibo @AvaFoo

Ava is among the millions of young Chinese prioritizing a “health-and-wellness” mindset when it comes to the fitness craze and outdoor sports market that has recently gone mainstream in China. Before this current wave, citizens had a different understanding of the sector. “When people think about sports, it’s generally running, fitness, weights… hardcore sports, with the purpose of the activity geared more towards outside appearance — gaining muscles, losing weight,” says Yilia Wu, PR Manager of loungewear and intimates brand Neiwai.

In recent years, the pivot towards exercise for holistic enjoyment, wellness, and overall health has led to a “feeling-good over looking-good” ethos for many of China’s Gen Z and millennials. Propelled by this shift in attitude, previously niche activities like yoga, skateboarding, glamping, cycling, and frisbee have swelled in popularity; China’s athleisure market has followed.  

Activewear previously frowned upon as too tight or revealing like leggings, yoga clothes, and fitted sports tops are now being seen in gyms, posts, and on the street too. 

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Though public views on active lifestyle cues have certainly broadened, women who choose to wear athleisure outside of sport settings still face social backlash. For every Ava, there is a counterpart. Take Xiaohongshu user and exercise influencer @chillcoolla who regularly shares workout videos to over 499,000 followers on the platform. Recently, a post acting out reactions to criticisms of her use of skin-tight biker shorts illustrates the difficulties faced by women who wear these types of clothing. 

The video currently sits at 296,000 likes and concludes in part with the comment: “It’s not easy dressing as a woman. Regardless of what you wear, you’ll receive criticism,” alongside the hashtags #slutshaming, #bodyshame, #穿衣自由 (wear what you want) and #瑜伽裤外穿 (wearing yoga clothes outside). It currently has over 1 million views and has become a trending topic on the app. 

Chinese fitness KOL 秋姨ChillCool @chillcoolla has faced criticism online for her choice of workout outfits. Photo: Xiaohongshu @chillcoolla

@chillcoolla is not alone. Women who wear these outfits on the street are facing negative comments too. Frisbee’s influx of new players like Gen-Z girls and influencers outfitted in Lululemon yoga-wear often face negative reactions and unwarranted labels such as “frisbee socialite (飞盘媛)” for posing in their outfits as they play. 

The success of China-focused intimate lines are helping to change attitudes. Adidas’ recent #SupportisEverything sports bra campaign or leading lingerie brand Neiwai’s “No Body is Nobody” initiative signals the current trend for body positivity and inclusivity, especially as China’s Gen Z and millennials increasingly prioritize well-rounded, exercise-driven, healthy lifestyles. 

For now, the rise of athleisure shows no signs of slowing. If anything, wearing leggings and performance outfits has become a sort of cultural “indicator of an aspirational lifestyle… given that being active requires a level of time and money,” explains Lexie Morris, VP China at sports performance apparel company Sweaty Betty. With continued permeation of the trend into mainstream fashion and with the help of wellness lifestyle’s positive feedback loop, second-skin athleisure just might outlast critics and controversy in the mainland.

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Consumer Insights, Fashion