SHANGHAI — Social media can be a powerful tool for tackling body image issues, offering a more inclusive and personal platform than fashion magazines or reality TV.
But the reality, as we well know, is that the likes of Instagram are often used to spread harmful photos and ideas about body image that fetishize certain attributes — thigh gaps, tiny waists — and discourage any deviation from the Photoshop-perfect ideal.
This pressure is especially acute in China, where there is only one ideal to aspire to: skinniness. There's no Kardashian curves or Beyoncé booty here on social media. The drive is for all things petite, to the extent that any method of affirming thinness has appeal — even if it's wildly inaccurate and proves nothing whatsoever.
Enter China's latest "trend," which has seen girls all over the country uploading pictures of themselves applying lipstick with their arm twisted behind their heads to prove they have small faces.
No matter that achieving this feat probably has more to do with your flexibility (much like the "belly button challenge," which saw girls wrapping their arms around their backs to prove the size of their minuscule waists) — it's taken the Chinese internet by storm.
The trend is just the latest in a quick succession of social media skinny "tests": the iPhone 6 knee challenge that deemed any pair of legs wider than an iPhone 6 not skinny enough, and the A4 test that got users to prove their waists were slimmer than a piece of paper are just some examples.
This latest test, in which skinny pressure has migrated upwards (in what seems like a parody of the original challenges), only validates how absurd these tests are — and the tragic state of body image among young women who appear desperate to meet them.
"I must prove my face is small," said user yomy_L with a photo showing her successfully completing the challenge.
"I failed the A4 waist, I failed the iPhone legs, I couldn't fail another challenge," said another.
As bizarre as this challenge might seem to Westerners, it fits right in with a uniquely Chinese beauty ideal. Chinese women don't just want slim bodies, they also like slender, "melon seed" faces in keeping with the country's beauty ideals.
This challenge and its predecessors — hiding behind sheets of paper, wrapping banknotes around your wrist — reflect the huge cultural pressure of Chinese women to look good, with their perceived prettiness impacting on every aspect of their lives, including their job prospects.
More than 7 million cosmetic surgeries were performed in China in 2014, with the industry expected to be worth more than $125 billion by 2019, according to the BBC. Young women say plastic surgery can improve their chances of finding work in a country where available jobs have outlandish demands for their candidates, such as including height requirements in their listings and making aspiring flight attendants pose in bikinis.
A study published earlier this year showed that while only about 17% of female college students in China were overweight or obese, half believed they were "too heavy" and that 20% of those looking to lose weight had resorted to diet pills, fasting or vomiting to try to slim down.
The skinny memes not only reflect that intense pressure, but also likely amplify it. "Of course, [these kinds of photos] could potentially inspire people to develop destructive eating and/or exercising habits," Kelsey Osgood, author of How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, told Refinery29.
So how can these memes be stopped in a country that prioritizes being slim to such a degree? Media coverage can help, as Refinery29 recently pointed out. On their own, Chinese social media users have turned to humor to try to deflate the growing pressure.
"The A4 waist sucks," said one Weibo user. "I've invented the chicken nugget face." Others have pointed out that Gollum, the decidedly unattractive creature from Lord of the Rings, would pass all the skinny challenges on social media — proof that when it comes to looking beautiful, physical contortions aren't everything.