Legend Zhu was the conventional ideal of Chinese beauty. Tall with shoulder-length hair, she led her university’s modeling team, whose members were often called upon to strut down runways at campus fashion shows wearing body-hugging dresses and dramatic eye makeup.
A recent college graduate, Ms. Zhu has attracted attention for her appearance once again, but in a far different way. Over the summer, she took to Xiaohongshu, a Chinese social media platform known for its lifestyle influencers, to post a selfie with buzz-cut hair and a cosmetic-free face.
“From a model to a natural woman,” Ms. Zhu wrote in the post, which also included “before” images from her modeling days. “It feels so comfortable!”
Ms. Zhu’s image received more than 1,000 likes and many compliments. She was also applauded for her defiance of the pressure on women to conform to traditional beauty standards. “This is so brave,” one comment said.
Bravery is necessary because the online approbation for Ms. Zhu’s new look is only part of the story. There were negative comments, too, which she deleted.
Anything connected to feminism can be a delicate subject in China. The nation’s Communist Party has long promoted gender equality as one of its core tenets, but it is wary of grass-roots organizing. Women making feminist statements online often face abuse and sometimes have their social media accounts deleted for “gender discrimination.” Those who have complained about sexual mistreatment by powerful men have lost in court or been pressured into silence.
Awareness of such problems is growing among young women in China, especially college-educated ones, said Leta Hong Fincher, the author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.” Sex discrimination in university admissions and in the job market has prompted some young women to resist gender roles, including those connected to appearance, Ms. Fincher said.
Ms. Zhu, 23, is among a number of young women inspired by a growing trend of rejecting what is known in Chinese internet parlance as “beauty duty”: the costly and sometimes painful devotion to mainstream notions of attractiveness. The idea is to spend time and resources not on beauty standards, but on personal development, including education and career growth.
“To stay beautiful, you need to constantly invest time, money and energy,” Ms. Zhu said. “Most men are free of this. It is unfair.”
Women subscribing to this idea are also refusing to starve themselves, shunning the dangerous diet culture that has underpinned popular internet challenges, such as one involving a piece of A4 paper held vertically at the user’s midsection to try to obscure the waist. Only the slenderest can be completely hidden by an 8.3-inch-wide sheet of paper.
Ms. Zhu said that when she was in college in Beijing and considering a career in the fashion industry, a modeling agency advised her to lose at least 22 pounds, down to 110. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, she found this unreasonable: “I could not imagine the harm to my body.”
She decided to enter a postgraduate program in urban planning instead.
When Annie Xie, a woman in the northern city of Qinhuangdao, was in middle school, she began wearing makeup and colored contact lenses and dieted to fit into size 0 dresses.
At 15, she was hospitalized for anorexia nervosa. That was when she started to look inward and was inspired by a classic of feminism, “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir. Reading its famous sentence “One is not born, but becomes a woman,” she said, felt “like a lightning strike.”
Feminist theories, Ms. Xie said, helped her free herself from obsessing about appearance. Now 23 and preparing to move overseas, she has stopped dieting, wears loosefitting clothes and no makeup, and often eschews a bra.
In Western countries, feminists have been calling out patriarchal attitudes for decades. But in many East Asian nations, where traditional gender expectations linger even amid rapid economic and technological growth, the rejection of narrow definitions of beauty is often regarded as radical.
In Japan, women have started a movement to fight workplace dress codes that require them to wear high heels. And in South Korea, women have challenged the country’s deep-rooted, rigid beauty culture with a campaign known as “Escape the Corset.”
In China, capitalism, and the prosperity it brought to China, has in some ways increased pressure on women to look good. The cosmetics and skin care market exceeded $69 billion last year, according to iResearch, a consulting firm.
State propaganda that promotes traditional gender norms, urging women to marry young and have babies, also pushes beauty standards. “So women who rebel against traditional beauty norms are viewed by the government as being more likely to rebel in other ways as well,” Ms. Fincher said.
Zelda Liu, a 27-year-old woman from the southeastern city of Suzhou, said that when she decided to get a buzz cut, she had to do it herself. Hairdressers hesitated, worrying that the close shave would hurt her scalp — a notion she found absurd: “Are female heads not heads?”
More than a year later, she is still sporting the cut and says it has meant she no longer gets unsolicited male attention or suggestions that she put on makeup. She describes the newfound freedom as a sense of “flying high.” She is also now living abroad.
Ms. Xie, the woman from Qinhuangdao, said a former boyfriend said that she had “given up” on herself. “I think it is ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t want to go back to the way things were before.”
Not all of the backlash comes from men. Some women have argued on social media that women who subscribe to conventional beauty norms should not be made to feel bad.
Women who reject such norms often regard other women who disagree with them as not being progressive enough, said Fiona Chen, a feminist influencer in China. But their criticism, she argued, should be focused on the real reason that expectations are unfair.
“Its root cause is not women,” she said. “It is the patriarchy.”