By Venus Wong
When the working day is done, the twentysomethings of Shanghai tend to celebrate with a meal out with friends, a stroll along the famed Bund waterfront park — or even a late night karaoke session.
Rachel Sun, however, has other plans in mind.
Twice a week, the 25-year-old shipping service executive says she skips out on social outings so she can hunker down at a fitness center near her office. For almost two hours, she sweats it out via a range of aerobic exercises — documenting her work in a gym selfie posted on social media.
Such dedication to a more toned and muscular form seems at odds with traditional beauty standards in China. In one 2003 survey published by the Journal of Hebei Institute of Physical Education, “an almost-emaciated, willowy physique” was cited as the prevalent ideal body among the 1,000 working female participants. Today, many women are focusing instead on being healthy and strong. And they recognize that not one body shape or type is best: “A skinny midriff isn’t the only type of beautiful abdomen out there” is one popular fitness motto that’s gone viral on social media.
Women in China used to correlate ‘skinny’ with ‘beautiful’ and go for extreme dieting. But the harm it inflicted upon the body and the unhappiness it would cause have become too obvious to ignore.
Ting Hsuan Chang, Fitness Blogger
So, what exactly prompted the drastic shift in attitudes in the span of a decade? A perfect storm of social media, growing consciousness about the importance of physical health, and celebrity influence seems to be the answer.
Sun said she was first motivated to get fit after encountering other women who hadn’t made working out a priority then struggled to regain strength after giving birth. Her will further escalated after she watched actress Jingchu Zhang demonstrate her fitness routine on Day Day Up, a widely watched talk show in China.
“She looked so delicate but was in fact so strong — that really stuck with me,” Sun told Refinery29.
These fitness-related revelations have proven to have a beneficial impact on the careers of female celebrities: Shanshan Yuan, a TV actress initially panned for her lackluster performing skills, managed a successful comeback after documenting her fitness progress on social media. The trending topic “Shanshan Yuan’s firm abs” has over 88 million hits on Sina Weibo, China’s main social media platform. Her strong (and obviously defined) midsection has become something of a sensation.
While many Chinese women draw motivation from public figures like Yuan and Zhu, others turn to everyday stories of fitness success. And as some gym-obsessed Chinese women have learned, sharing your own fitness routines on social media can transform you into a successful personal brand overnight.
Ting Hsuan Chang, 41, started uploading photos of her fitness routine on her Facebook page back in 2012, after a heart-related health scare. The mother of two’s youthful appearance and toned abs — which she says she achieved in three months — soon caught mainstream attention and widespread media coverage. A book deal and a fitness tutorial DVD soon followed.
“Women in China used to correlate ‘skinny’ with ‘beautiful’ and go for extreme dieting,” the blogger said. “But the harm it inflicted upon the body and the unhappiness it would cause have become too obvious to ignore.”
For now, Chinese women such as Emma Wang, 26, seem to be listening.
The television producer sensed the need for a lifestyle change as her job often demanded long hours in front of a computer screen. She hired a personal trainer in June 2015, not to lose weight, but to build muscle and strength.
“I don’t have a goal weight,” Wang said, clarifying a different physical benchmark she’s after. “Nothing can bring me more satisfaction than seeing that muscle line that separates my abs gradually appear.”