The Oxford English dictionary defines “millennial”as “people reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century”. The phrase gets around a lot these days, with many not understanding just who fits into the bracket. One thing is for sure, China’s young millennial market is bursting at the seams.
This Chinese generation are notably more affluent than their predecessors, seeming to prefer to spend than save. The nation’s fashion, design and lifestyle markets have greedily tapped into this financial trend. With the presence of influencers and KOLs on China’s expansive social media, self-branded products are on the rise.
The It girls and boys of China are rewriting the rulebook and whatever they do, their loyal millennial fans will eagerly follow. Nevertheless, this is becoming problematic for a seemingly easily influenced generation, as they strive to achieve an increasingly idealized and often unattainable aesthetic, body image and status.
Birds of a feather may flock together, but in this scenario… Are they headed for an Icarus moment?
Celeb Culture in the East
Before China opened up the gates to the outside world after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), there was only one real focus for the country: Politics. Just like pretty much everything else in China of the past two decades, things have changed.
Consumer culture and economic growth have diligently provided a platform for Chinese celebrity culture to boom. The country is now home to its own breed of pop-stars, influencers and Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs).
The latter have in the past five years become a big part of contemporary Chinese culture, not to mention of any brand’s checklist when advertising new fashion or lifestyle or beauty attire. This new brand of online celebs tie their names to brands, advertising their product via social media to connect with their consumers en masse.
China’s KOL Cult
Most KOLs boast ultra-loyal followings, making them household names with China’s teens and millennials. For brands, choosing the right person can make the difference between success and failure. Michael Kors recently announced Chinese actress Yang Li as their latest brand ambassador.
Li has been flaunting the brand’s clothing and bags at high-scale events like the Met Gala as well as trivial locations such as the airport. She promotes the brand as being part of an ‘everyday on-/off-duty essential. This way, the actress gently yet firmly “helps” China’s millennials perceive high fashion as both accessible and desirable. Clever.
China’s KOL culture has bred a new generation of independent voices. These new multi-tonal sounds provide a point of view that cuts through the noise of the constant, crazy advertising flaunted pretty much everywhere across China’s first-tier cities. The discerning eyeballs of the millennial consumer seem to like what they see.
You like what you see? You wanna video me? Careful now. This new breed of KOL does not suffer fools gladly per se and is often more than just a pretty face. They set the standard unattainably high for China’s millennials who in turn feel the pressure to achieve an ‘idealised’ body image. And lack the confidence or disposable income to buy the products they see constantly plastered over their Weibo or Instagram (for the VPN savvy) feeds.
Social Media Starlets
Millennial characteristics generally bear the mark of an increased use of communications and digital technology. A single ride on the Shanghai or Beijing metro will prove that, as a society, China is mobile phone orientated.
Often consuming most people, old and young, mobile phones are essentially the backbone of modern life in China.
For Chinese minors, the country’s super app WeChat is a vital part of growing up. All the while allowing you to do pretty much anything. Pay your bills, message your friends, read about your favourite celebrities. You name it, WeChat most likely has got it. Since its launch in 2011, the do-it-all app has garnered one billion active users worldwide.
While American pop stars may be the leaders of western sites like Twitter and Facebook, there are Chinese celebrities with an equally large fanbase, or far larger ones, on China’s biggest social media platform: Sina Weibo.
Example, you ask? Dubbed the ‘Queen of Weibo’, Xie Na (谢娜 in Chinese; also nicknamed ‘娜娜|Nana)’ is a singer and actress. With a Weibo following of over 90 million.
All Hail The Weibo Queen
Chinese millennials may argue the narrative of her life is ideal, Nana has several albums, has founded a personal clothing line and published two books. And she’s married. Yes, Nana managed to bag herself a man. The harsh reality for China’s teens often entails one of intense studying and a tremendous amount pressure from parents and teachers.
These famous influencers produce a clash between reality and fantasy; sometimes the lives depicted on social media are so far away from many young people’s reality, it can lead to self-loathing and negative feelings about oneself. Due the constant comparison
Striving For the unattainable ideal
For young Chinese women, beauty ideals frequently include pale white skin, large round eyes and slim figures. Similarly, for males there is a pressure to be tall, thin and on-trend. Often influenced by K-Pop and Japanese anime culture, China’s teens often find themselves striving for an unattainable body image.
The constant reminders of beauty standards are prompted by friends, families and employers; making it hard to break the ‘norm’. Many of these beauty standards stem from ancient Chinese traditions.
The ‘white skin ideal’ is an old Chinese idea, only rich people had pale skin as they didn’t have to labor in the great outdoors. Yet, these notions still run strong in a country of long-lasting traditions.
Millennial Media Usage At An All-Time High
With beauty standards that cannot be reached, in comes the face-altering app, where China’s millennials run free, thinning their noses and whitening their skin. ‘
China baby Meitu (美图 in Chinese) owns a line-up of face altering apps that currently count 454 million active users, with most of their users being young teens and millennials.
These super apps create a ‘false reality’. The creation and borderline exploitation of warped and edited pictures makes teens become increasingly confused about ‘what they “should” look like. With a rise of eating disorders in China amongst young people, the importance of promoting inner beauty on social media is becoming ever-more prevalent. Icarus vibes yet, anyone?
In sum. With media usage at an all-time high, the flow of information Chinese millennials intake is stronger and more powerful due to technological advancements. It’s almost becoming impossible for Chinese millennials to scroll through their many social media feeds and avoid the stream of influencers, KOLs and famous celebrities all telling them what to do. In order to look like their app altered selves.
Unable to avoid KOLs, celebs and omnipresent advertising alike, Chinese millennials are starting to doubt and question their own beauty and body images. Hopefully, with the international message of body positivity and authenticity (think influencer Scarlett Halo), more and more Chinese millennials are waking up to the idea of body confidence and positivity.
And remember, if you know your digital data limits, you won’t crash and burn — or rather the other way around.
Written by Emily Aspinall for Temper Magazine
Edited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Featured Image: Melilim Fu is a makeup artist, China cosmetics and fashion social media influencer. Copyright@Melilim Fu, 2019. All rights reserved
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As a freelance journalist, she specializes in Chinese society and fashion, her fascination surrounding the East grew since living and working in a rural ex-fishing village on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Aspinall aims to capture a sense of the colourful and dynamic contemporary China, which continues to revolutionise and evolve.
Aspinall holds an English Literature degree from Sheffield University. She explored the literary canon, starting with old English and ending with the contemporary period, her area of speciality and research is post-war British social realism. While studying, she also on gained experience at the BBC, local publishing houses and copy edited the student newspaper.
Since moving to China, she has written regularly for Temper Magazine,The Shanghaiist and her personal blog. Her interests include gender fluidity, the modern representation of women, sustainability and the underground scene in China.