Chinese culture has a long tradition of valuing conformity dating back to Confucius’ teachings and continuing through decades of 20th-century Communist rule. Because of this, Chinese consumers tend to easily subscribe to a uniformed aesthetic created by authorities or social norms. The country also has a long history of equating thinness with beauty, an aesthetic found in China’s ancient literature and folk stories. Diverging from the norm there is not encouraged, and women and girls who do not conform to these ideals often receive disparaging comments about their weight from family, friends, and even from strangers.
Scarlett Hao knows the challenges these women face. A Chinese fashion influencer who’s based in New York, Hao is known by her 170,000 followers as a style icon for plus-sized women and a strong advocate for body-positive culture. But despite her following on Instagram, she is struggling to expand her influence in China. “It’s frustrating when people I work with in the U.S. try to discourage me from promoting myself in China,” says Hao. “They don’t think Chinese consumers are ready for me.”
Many Western pundits have discussed the need to diversify traditional beauty standards in fashion, particularly in luxury fashion, not just for the altruistic reason of improving women’s self-images, but also reasoning that more inclusive representations of women will actually be good for sales in a challenging economic climate.
U.S. brands like Aerie, which is owned by the teen-focused company American Eagle and says it seeks to “empower all women to love their real selves,” are proving this might be true. Aerie, which brags it carries lingerie sizes up to DDD, saw its sales grow 38 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018, while sales of big throwback lingerie brands like Victoria’s Secret, which has projected a two percent slip for Q4, have struggled. In London earlier this week, a group of full-figured barely clad women calling themselves “the Fallen Angels” protested the brand on Oxford Street.
Such messages of empowerment are resonating with an increasing number of Western women but have yet to find a large audience in China. But now, thanks to a slew of different factors, that could be changing.
One of those is the rise of new generations of consumers in China that crave individuality. Chinese millennials and Gen-Z consumers seek new adventures and place an increased value on personal success. These demographic changes, coupled with incremental shifts in public opinion, suggest that now could be a good time to start a discussion about body-positive representation in China’s market.
“Chinese millennials and Gen Zers, particularly those who live in top-tier cities, have greater access to Western culture and ideals compared to older generations,” says deputy style director at Grazia China, Hubert Chen. “While many in China still lack the cultural context to appreciate diversity, these consumers are more likely to understand its impact and are open to talking about it.”
Hao believes her generation is ready to embrace the body-positive culture in China, and there’s already business potential in that country for brands offering plus-size clothing. “I have women living in China asking me everyday where to buy the clothes I wear on Instagram,” Hao confides. “Their choices are limited.”
Some Chinese retailers have already taken notice of this need. China Daily reported that some shop owners on Taobao, China’s largest online marketplace, make over $15 million a year selling plus-size clothing to Chinese women, and plus-size models on Taobao receive twice as much pay on average as slender models due to the increased demand for — and paucity of — them.
Influencers, social media, and online sales platforms can offer brands different ways to reach the Chinese plus-size community — a strategy that Chinese retail giants like TMall are already deploying.
At a recent gala to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Single’s Day shopping festival, TMall made the choice to include Japanese comedienne and plus-size model Naomi Watanabe as a headline performer, and the audience’s response was extremely positive. In fact, when one of the show’s emcees took it upon himself to make disparaging comments about Watanabe’s weight, the online community came to her defense and severely criticized the speaker for “body shaming”. The hashtag #EmceeTeasesNaomiWatanabe# has generated 20 million views so far on the Chinese social media site Sina Weibo.
Public debate about social policies or issues is rare in China, because of social norms and media censorship, but Chinese companies are increasingly sophisticated in the way they discreetly use social causes to market to consumers.
But many Western brands, not wanting to take risks in a far-away country, continue to espouse a conservative “wait and see” approach to body positivity in the China market and have so far avoided progressive causes in their marketing strategies. But a booming e-commerce culture and an increased consumer affinity to local brands — propelled by the emergence of smart, young Chinese designers as well as a new emphasis on national pride — mean that competition from within is increasing. Western brands that wait too long will risk losing market share to smaller local brands that are more nimble and socially relevant in their marketing strategies.
“The bottom line is that Chinese consumers want to see a brand that has personality,” notes Chen. “Brands that already celebrate diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be afraid to speak their mind.”
Charlie Gu is the CEO of Kollective Influence, a marketing agency that specializes in cross-border influencer management and strategy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.