Selling Thin in China

After stating in my very first post here yesterday that I wanted this space to be about more than just China, I’m going to jump in with a short piece about … China.

Today is the National Organization for Women’s Love Your Body Day, an event designed “to send a positive message to women and girls that beauty comes in all colors, shapes and sizes.” I have divided feelings about LYBD: while I appreciate focusing attention on the issue of body acceptance, I also wish designating a special day to do so weren’t necessary. But I don’t think anyone at NOW would disagree with me on that point.

When I was thinking about whether or not I might participate in the LYBD blog carnival, though, I realized that it would present a natural opportunity for me to write about something I had noticed during the eight weeks I spent in Shanghai over the summer: the proliferation of weight-loss centers targeting women and spreading a message that equates thinness with achievement and beauty.

Charmaine Sheh advertises Perfect Shape at the Yan'an Xi Lu metro stop in Shanghai

While I certainly remembered plenty of hair salons, nail parlors, and plastic surgery centers from my previous time in China (2006-2008), the new visibility of the weight-loss industry surprised me upon my return. This summer, every time I entered the subway station in my neighborhood, I walked past a larger-than-life advertisement for a program called (in English) “Perfect Shape,” featuring spokeswoman Charmaine Sheh wearing a short and tight red dress that accentuated the curves of her breasts and hips and narrowness of her waist. Perfect Shape, I later learned from its website, is a Hong Kong company that offers customers “medical body slimming” through (as far as I can determine) electrical stimulation and deep tissue massage. No dieting or exercise necessary! And with the special 688RMB ($108) introductory package, within two weeks a customer could lose between six and ten jin (about 6.6 to 11 pounds)—though, of course, the website warns that individual results might vary.

Once I noticed the Perfect Shape ad, I began looking for evidence of other weight-loss centers during my trips around the city. It didn’t take me long to find several more: at metro stops and in shopping malls across Shanghai, I saw poster after poster selling weight-loss services, every one of them aimed at women. The advertisements promoting these programs generally sported a mixture of Chinese and English text, visibly linking the industry with the West. Some of the businesses’ names performed a similar function. London Weight Management, for example, encouraged potential customers to take up the “4S Figure” challenge:

尺码更加Small, 拥有Slim苗条身段

Make your measurements smaller, have a slim figure
Attract stares from everyone, develop a sexy allure*

Marie France Bodyline, proclaiming a tagline of “New Body, New Life,” favored spare billboards with brief testimonials from satisfied customers, accompanied by before-and-after photos. According to “Sabrina,” “成功纤体就是女人成功的开始” (Achieving a slim body is just the start of a successful woman). Like Perfect Shape, Marie France Bodyline promised a painless, effortless weight-loss process: as I strolled past their outlet in a large shopping mall, I spotted a sign outside the door assuring potential customers that they would find “No Pills, No Hunger, No Exercise” within.

Marie France Bodyline advertisement in a Shanghai shopping mall

The growing obesity problem in China is no secret (particularly to those who have read Paul French and Matthew Crabbe’s book on the subject, Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines Are Changing a Nation). But these weight-loss centers are not expressing concerns about their customers’ health; they’re selling a message in which thinness is the key to happiness and success for a woman and weight loss a foolproof way to transform one’s life for the better.

The Marie France Bodyline weight-loss plan

I don’t know if Shanghai’s weight-loss centers are profitable or not, and chances are a few will have shut their doors by the time I return to China. But the mindset and the lifestyle that they encourage might be much more difficult to eradicate. Perhaps, as Marie France Bodyline, Perfect Shape, and other such businesses paper cities like Shanghai with their advertisements, we’ll also see a Chinese version of Love Your Body Day emerge to counter such messages.

*I’m not a trained translator, and this isn’t exactly vocabulary I encounter frequently in my research on Chinese children’s literature! Corrections and improvements are very welcome.

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival.

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