Women on Weibo (China’s equivalent to Twitter) are taking part in a beauty competition with an unusual focus: Armpit hair.
The contest was started by women’s rights activist Xiao Meili in response to the increasingly common practice of armpit hair removal. With summer approaching (and tank tops and shorts with it), Xiao has encouraged anyone who identifies as a woman to show off her body hair with pride.
Xiao Meili gained some fame for walking from Beijing to Guangzhou (about 2000 km) to raise awareness of sexual violence. Her Weibo handle, which translates to Beautiful Feminist Walk, is a reference to the feat.
The contest doesn’t have too many entrants, but it has attracted some prominent Chinese feminists, including Wei Tingting, Li Tingting and Zheng Churan, three of the five women jailed for planning a protest against sexual harassment on the subway.
In a telephone interview with The New York Times, Xiao said. “Men have more freedom in terms of what to do with their bodies.” She added, “I’m not calling on everybody to grow underarm hair. I’m just saying if some people don’t want to shave, the rest of us should not think their underarm hair is disgusting, unhygienic, uncivil or not feminine enough.”
Beauty standards pretty much everywhere on earth are stricter for women than they are for men, but in China the pressure is especially harsh. Women wear high heels on hiking trips. They carry parasols, wear sunhats, and slather on skin-whitening cream to maintain a fair complexion. They obsess over weight loss but avoid many types of exercise for fear of growing thick arm muscles. Eating disorders are common; many of my students speak openly of their insufficient diets or flat-out fear of food, usually with a feminine giggle.
A friend of mine who works in medicine tells me she was forced by her employers to take part in a beauty contest; as all of the hospital’s female staff members stood in one great line, the toad-faced, potbellied male administrators waddled up and down, pointing out each woman’s flaws (“Her thighs are too thick,” “Her skin is too dark”) and loudly argued as to which was the prettiest and which was the ugliest.
But even so, Chinese women don’t traditionally shave their body hair. Until twenty years ago, most Chinese women wouldn’t have dreamed of shaving their armpits, and even today many women walk through China’s cities with their hairy limbs proudly exposed. But for Chinese women, the practice of body hair removal is becoming increasingly common, likely to the influence of Western media. American TV shows like Friends and The Big Bang Theory are incredibly popular in mainland China, though the Chinese Communist Party banned the latter program last year.
One participant, Charlie Liu, blamed capitalism for the rising trend of body hair removal. She recalled seeing television ads for shaving cream as a child. She told the Global Times, “After World War II, capitalism developed quickly, during which cultivating the aesthetic appreciation of a women’s body was no longer just for men, but for the sake of consumerism targeted at women.”
Armpit-shaving, then, is not just anti-feminist; it’s a sign of Western cultural imperialism as well and a capitalistic subversion of traditional Chinese values.
Liu submitted multiple entries to the contest, some of the best we’ll include below, including a topless photo (NSFW) that we won’t include below on behalf of those of you reading at work.
Some entrants sent group photos:
Some flexed their glorious biceps:
Some got a little weird:
In a display of solidarity, a few men shaved their armpits and sent in pictures. This guy tried laser hair removal and wrote, “Too much pain. I don’t want to do it again.”
Many entries, like this one, included a story. A rough translation follows.
While you’re enjoying my armpits, let me add a little story. When I was straight, I and my then-boyfriend thought that it was normal and beautiful to shave your armpit hair for sleeveless clothes (a trivial thing) until I made him shave his armpits, he had to raise his arms slowly until his hair grew back completely – every day he complained of pain that we think it is insignificant and necessary for a woman to bear.
In a post in the early hours of June 11, Xiao Meili’s Weibo account declared the contest finished, though she has yet to choose a winner.
The first-place winner will receive 100 condoms. The second will get a vibrator. The third will win 10 devices that allow women to pee standing up.
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