By Jiaqi Luo
In the past decade, the bra industry’s evolution has been a mirror of women and society’s interchange. While in 2010 the West may have appeared far more advanced in terms of gender equality than, say, 50 years prior, the #metoo movement alone showed that society has a long, long way to go. Similar strides and new perspectives have cropped up in many forms – one of them being the portrayal of women in advertising, particularly for bras and underwear. Recently, we’ve seen smart actions from brands wise to the changing social landscape, such as Victoria’s Secret cancelling their flagship annual show, for one thing. It took businesses quite some time to realise, but women do not like to be told how to be sexy.
Emerging brands that promote values of body positivity, inclusivity and diversity are on the rise. By selling underwear in 70+ sizes to women of all body types and all skin tones, in adverts that show women of the same diversity, these new-age brands have pointed to one empowering message: “everyone looks good.”
The same quest-for-inclusion sentiment is happening in China too, but it’s taken a very different form. While western women’s problems with brands mostly centre on the extreme thinness and whiteness of billboard models, Chinese women openly desire to be thin and pale. So rather, they have issues with the exact opposite – there isn’t enough representation of ‘real’ Chinese models that represent their majority.
For most of the last two decades, Chinese girls were taught that a flat chest is the enemy of ideal female beauty. An A-cup size boob was said to be a big turnoff on men, thus a severe problem to be fixed with push-up bras and breast enlargement tricks. Popular slang called an A-cup boob as an “airport boob,” and lauded a woman’s breast cleavage as the “career line.” Beauty magazines and forums were filled with breast-enlarging diets and food suggestions such as papaya and soy milk. Bra-wearing was also an effortful task.
In the past, mainstream Chinese underwear brands almost exclusively produced heavily padded, push-up bras made to boost at least 2 sizes up on every boob. On online forums, Zhihu and Douban, one of the most frequently asked questions from teenage girls were, “What to do if my boobs disappoint my boyfriend?” Advertising, media, and popular culture have diffused, among Chinese women, a harsh message that sounds like this: “Your boobs don’t look like the model’s, and that needs to be fixed.”
Comfort is the new sexy for Gen Z
However, the millennial and Gen Z segments are changing things around. Although having grown up in mainstream, boob-shaming advertising, most of China’s twenty-somethings are embracing comfort over the forced femininity their mama’s generation was fixated about.
Today, young women want comfy, airy bras that are made to make them forget they’re wearing it. The squeezing, the tugging, the efforts required to pop even the slightest cleavage with a wired push-up bra sounds like an archaic horror from the early 2000s.
As this “OK boomer” attitude continues to escalate, the comfortable, non-flattering bra has gone from being considered a piece of self-deprecation to an object of pleasure and delight.
Cosmo Lady, China’s biggest underwear brand and seen as the local “Victoria’s Secret,” has been one of the most radical embodiments of this cultural change. For many years, the brand was associated mainly with its long-term ex-ambassador Lin Chi-ling, who posed as a submissive play-thing (below) in push-up bra in the brand’s iconic, ‘delicate princess’ billboard images.
Fast forward to 2019, and the brand’s latest campaign #BeYourOwnIdol this month featured seven young Chinese real/non-models to represent different body types and personalities. There is the working mom, the cosplay lover, the double-D cup lady, the androgynous girl, and other types of young women (and their boobs) far from the ideal that traditional Chinese advertising has usually portrayed.
First, Cosmo Lady’s old pinky-floaty-princess campaign and second, the new #BeYourOwnIdol campaign. Image: @Cosmolady official Weibo account
According to a report by CBN Data and Tmall, China’s wireless bra market has been growing at a 50% annual rate after hitting a curvy peak (if you will) in 2017. Post-1990s and post-1995s youngsters have made up the absolute majority of this wireless, comfy consumer group.
Around 60% of the bras sold on Tmall in 2018, according to Tmall’s head of underwear department Yu-Hui during an interview, were wireless. Besides, Yu-Hui mentioned that China’s lingerie market is a challenging field for international brands. He said, “In the Chinese lingerie market, consumers don’t have much perceptive preference for foreign brands over domestic brands. Many foreign lingerie brands actually face product challenges in China, such as adjusting the bra cup design to better fit Chinese women.”
International vs. Local: Lifestyle vs. Companionship
There are, though, international brands that have succeeded in earning popularity among millennial China by representing aspirational lifestyles. Lululemon, the Canadian athleisure cult brand, has cultivated a solid presence among China’s gym-goers and those who want to participate in that healthy, self-care lifestyle group. To them, sports bras and a curvy butt are more of a statement than traditional luxury and products.
Brands like Free People and Oysho, known for their stylish, easy-to-pair bralettes, also receive rave reviews on Chinese social media. The “dessus dessous” practice, which makes the bra part of the total look, is quite novel to China. On the higher-end of the spectrum, Italian lingerie brand La Perla stands for a luxurious gift to pamper and reward oneself.
In China, the myth about “western women” is still very alive: there’s an assumption that western ladies are culturally conditioned to be more confident, self-assured and free-minded than their Chinese counterparts. In a time when Chinese women increasingly seek the message of “free” in their bras, this assumption could be in favour of international brands.
What international brands are missing, however, is the gentle companionship that local Chinese brands have firmly established in the consumers’ minds. Different than the “lifestyle showing” approach that is common to international brands, Chinese brands tend to put women in a direct, friendly confrontation with their own stigma towards the female body.
NeiWai (featured image above), a fast-growing Chinese underwear brand, uses “you understand me inside and out” as the slogan to emphasise companionship. The brand also produces digital content that features modern Chinese women in multiple roles, showing how a soft, comfy bra is the best companion for their lives.
Another local brand, BerryMelon, invites Chinese women to speak about stigmas about their own body and has made its slogan, “I came in looking for a new bra, I left as a new woman.” Brand Ubras, on the other hand, markets its comfy bras as “the clothe that snugs your heart.” For local brands, empowerment means recognizing one’s own sexuality and accepting one’s own body. It is like saying, “Your boobs don’t look like the model’s, and that’s OK.”
Neiwai’s ad campaign reads, “you understand me inside and out.” Image: Neiwai’s official WeChat
BerryMelon’s ad campaign uses non-models and invites women to speak about body stigmas. Image: BerryMelon’s official WeChat
Compared to international brands, Chinese brands use a softer tone of voice and act as a ‘companion’ to help women confront the old-school macho assumption of sexiness that still dominates the country’s mainstream culture.
Female empowerment is unstoppable
Even today, many Chinese women still feel uncomfortable towards the idea of sexiness in general, because it is a deviation from the traditional definition of a good woman who belongs to the family, the husband, to everyone but herself. They are uncomfortable also because, for the most part, mainstream advertising has them feel that sexiness only belongs to the ideally beautiful C-cup women it portrayed; thus, saying that many women don’t deserve to be sexy should they not reach the criteria.
Among the many global trends of body inclusivity and diversity, the empowerment Chinese women are looking for is much simpler: that their sexiness is their own definition.