Step aside Twiggy – more and more Chinese people are embracing a healthy body image

By Chen Ximeng Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-10 18:58:01

After suffering for years from illness and injury due to being too thin, Tang Fei, a 28-year-old woman in Beijing, is now embracing a healthier body image as the result of exercise. Photo: Courtesy of Tang Fei


For Tang Fei, a 28-year-old marketing manager in Beijing, the dangers of unrealistic body images remain fresh in her mind even years later.

"When I was young, I thought that the thinner you were, the more beautiful you looked. But after suffering through years of illness and injury, I gradually came to realize that beauty based on a healthy body and lifestyle is more natural and sustainable," said Tang, who, at her thinnest, weighed just 43 kilograms, which is dangerously underweight for her height of 1.74 meters.

As summer approaches, it's a plight more and more women are likely to find themselves in as they adopt crash diets in an attempt to slim down for swimsuit season. In recent years, though, some women have been fighting back against unrealistic body images, most notably Ashley Graham, who this year became the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated's celebrated swimsuit issue. In addition to setting an example with her work, Graham has tried to promote healthy body images and encourage women to embrace their bodies on her Instagram account with the tag "Beauty Beyond Size," which, according to a May 4 report by, has received growing recognition. So far, the tag has inspired more than 50,0oo posts on Instagram, along with countless selfies posted by plus-size women. 

Though the body acceptance movement has so far gained more traction in the West, it's also starting to make headway in China as young people like Tang begin to rethink the emaciated ideals of the past in favor of healthier standards for weight and fitness.

More Chinese are beginning to accept a healthy body image rather than simply trying to lose weight. Photo: IC


Embracing a healthy body image

Wu Yue, a 26-year-old woman who works at an IT company, used to be obsessed with her weight. Whenever she surpassed 47 kilograms - already underweight for her height of 1.66 meters - she would become anxious and eat very little food for several days.

Since last year though, under the influence of her friends, Wu began to take a different tack, trading in excessive dieting for exercise at the gym four times a week, each time for one hour. She was delighted by the changes in her figure and became more energetic and confident.

"Compared with my previous body, which was very thin and flat, I am happier with my current figure," said Wu. "I weigh a bit more, but my body is firmer and more healthy."

Wu isn't alone. She thinks that more Chinese young people are embracing healthy body images thanks to the influence of their peers, celebrities and pop culture.

"In recent years, we have seen a wave of pictures on social media of hard bodies with V-line abs or firm abs posted by celebrities and common people who want to encourage a healthier body image through exercise," said Wu, who is now 51 kilograms and has a body fat rate of 20.

Wang Yin, the founder of Fit-Start, a Shanghai-based fitness company that offers both online and offline training programs, also told Metropolitan that more and more Chinese people, especially young people, no longer regard slender figures as the height of beauty.

"In the past, many people, even thin people who might be healthy, would compare themselves to others and strive to lose weight by going on diets, taking diet pills, getting plastic surgery, engaging in unscientific exercises, and so on. Their ultimate goal was to lose weight, to have a low body mass index (BMI) or slim body," said Wang. "However, in recent years, more Chinese people have begun to realize that health is more important and that having a low BMI or slim body can sometimes be unsustainable and unhealthy. The ultimate goal of workouts should be to keep the body healthy, not to lose weight." 

BMI is a person's weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in meters. A BMI that ranges from 18.5 to 24.99 is seen as standard.

According to a 2015 investigation by Nielsen, a global information and measurement company, and the General Administration of Sport of China, the biggest reasons cited by Chinese people for working out at the gym include losing weight, improving their health, and body contouring, said a report in November 2015.

Twenty-six-year-old Wu Yue relies on exercise and strength training to maintain her beautiful figure. Photo: Courtesy of Wu Yue

Overcoming misunderstandings

According to a recent study, people should not give too much weight to their BMI, which has been used for decades as a measure of overall health. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to weight and health, the study suggests that people can be "fat but fit" or thin and unhealthy, the Huffington Post reported this February.

Tang, for instance, realized after learning about body composition that she was "skinny fat," or thin but unfit. 

Although she had a BMI of only 15, her body fat rate was 28 (25 qualifies as "overweight") due to a lack of exercise.

In an effort to lower her BMI, she tried all kinds of diets, eventually leading her to be so underweight that for years she suffered from malnutrition, severe insomnia and anxiety.

Although she was very thin, her body contained more fat than muscle. Her muscles were so underdeveloped that when she began to work out, her knees took a beating, because her thin legs were too weak to support strenuous exercise. The last straw was at the beginning of 2014, when she climbed the Great Wall, and began to hear a crunching sound coming from her knees. Soon, she was completely unable to walk, and had to be carried back down. She ended up being out of commission for two weeks.

After these hard lessons, Tang started teaching herself about fitness and health. "Only a body with an appropriate body composition of fat and muscle is healthy and can be beautiful. Only looking at your weight and BMI is too one-sided," said Tang. She now has a healthy body image with a BMI of 17 and body fat rate of 22.

According to Wu Xueliang, a clinical nutritionist and registered dietitian at Beijing United Family Rehabilitation Hospital, BMI, which focuses merely on weight and height, is not the only way to judge your body and health. "Now, more people are realizing that there are more indexes such as body fat rate, lean muscle mass, waist-hip ratio, etc., which offer a more scientific way of assessing their bodies. In this way, people's understanding of body image can be changed."

Wang, who has over 300,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging platform, has answered many questions from users about how to define healthy weight gain and loss, as well as what constitutes a healthy body image using different indexes.

"I think a better way is to look at a person's body fat rate or calculate his or her waist-to-height or waist-to-hip ratio," said Wang.

He listed three kinds of unhealthy situations that people should pay special attention to. One is low BMI with a low body fat rate, which counts as "emaciated." People in this group are so thin that they can't even gain muscle mass through exercise. The second is low BMI with a high body fat rate due to frequent dieting and a lack of exercise, which is "skinny fat." The last is a high BMI paired with high body fat rate, which is categorized as "obese."  

"As long as all the indexes show that you're 'normal,' you can count yourself as healthy, which is true natural beauty, regardless of what any one index says. For example, those who have a higher percentage of muscle, which weighs more than fat, might have a heavier weight than those with less muscle, but they might be more fit with a more beautiful figure," said Wang.

How to develop a healthy body image

Fitness experts suggest that beginners start out by taking stock of their current level of health and body composition by using the aforementioned indexes, rather than simply tracking weight, and then deciding whether they want to focus on fat reduction or building muscle. But the most important thing is to be persistent. 

Wang said the appropriate range of body fat rate for women is 20 to 25, and for men, is 15 to 20, though he added that people should avoid relying too much on these measurements.

"You should observe the changes in your body very carefully. By looking at a picture that shows the different body shapes that correspond to different body fat rates, you can also gain an understanding of what your body fat rate is."

He also pointed out that maintaining a good figure is only one small part of the overall picture. In addition to working out, people should also prioritize a healthy diet and rest.

Wu Yue added that women who are focused on fat reduction should look at strength training to help shape their bodies.

While many women prefer aerobic exercise like running or swimming, he points out that they're more useful for fat reduction than body sculpting. "I think both fat reduction and strength training are very important and you can combine them," said Wu Yue.  

Tang also said people should not be short-sighted by trying to overload on exercise for fast weight-loss.

"Keeping fit is a long-term process, not something impulsive that you do to lose weight when summer comes," said Tang, who said she plans to continue on with her workouts. After two months without regular workouts due to work, she returned to her core strength training class this Monday and started a new round of training.   

Newspaper headline: Beauty beyond size

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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