On the Face of It: Controlling the Body on Xiaohongshu, the Chinese Instagram

Feb 14, 2024 8:15 AM

Cassie Wen

Publication year
February 8, 2024


Photo from Carlos Rodriguez on UnSplash

On the Face of It: Controlling the Body on Xiaohongshu, the Chinese Instagram

by Cassie Wen

Xiaohongshu, an image-based application, is currently one of the most important social media and e-commerce platforms in China. The name translates to “Little Red Book” and is also known as RED; it has more than 300 million users. Once said to be the Chinese version of Instagram, it is deemed to be an urban girls’ club and the white-collar women’s community in China’s digital space — most of the content produced is for young women, consumed by them, and more significantly, it is also reproduced by young women. This singularity endows it a wide reputation as the most female-friendly digital environment in China, a platform where the female subjectivity is dominant. However, when it comes to one’s appearances, how truly friendly and empowering is Xiaohongshu? In this blog, we explore and interrogate the ways in which language is employed to engage with these topics on this particular platform, especially the quasi-medical lens that is becoming the standard to describe the human body, especially women’s bodies.

On Xiaohongshu, the female appearance is often represented through ‘science-adjacent’ but not scientific medical terms. This discourse objectifies the body/face, pathologizes it, and then markets products that are pushed by both the advertising industry as well as the beauty industry. The use of such language can have a detrimental impact to young women’s mental and physical health in various ways. We argue that this ‘Power Femininity’ is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — the capitalistic beauty and advertising industries have stepped away from the old ploy that goaded women to ‘become prettier’, and changed their tactic to encourage an ‘improvement’ of one’s health. What we see playing out on Xiaohongshu is a combination of medical discourse, consumer femininity and commodity feminism (Goldman, Heath and Smith, 1991).

By using medical terminology on female bodies, the objectified body is positioned in the context of other objects (goods); therefore, neoliberalist ideology is ‘reinforced through the constructed virtues of health and beauty and values of an individual’s eternal advancement towards the ideal of ‘health’, as demonstrated by a variety of Xiaohongshu posts. As scholars working on popular feminism, post-feminism have reflected elsewhere (Johnston and Taylor, 2008), the commercialization precisely indicates how the material development of some middle-class urban women is conscripted into the navigation of the profitable popular feminism in the market. That is where the ‘science-adjacent’ medical terms come to dictate the discursive power over female bodies in digital social sphere.

The Problematic Vocabulary

Most of the posts examined below use a kind of ‘science-adjacent’ language, but not reliable scientific terminology. They create a correlation that links beauty to health: a ‘bad’ appearance of one’s body parts implies that one is ‘unhealthy’. In response, commodity solutions from a medical perspective are generated. Some of these texts direct to products that claim to solve such health/beauty problems. A commercial cycle is formed: first, there is an objectification and pathologizing of the female body, then solutions are provided through products, followed by suggestions to achieve an ideal physical image.

Examples of descriptive medical language and marketable solutions on Xiaohongshu, (translated from the original to English):

  • It is despairing that medial gastrocnemius is overdeveloped. Have lost 10 pounds. My waist and thighs are thin now, but my calves remain unchanged. So demoralizing! I should consider surgery.
  • Today, I have compiled different ways of using a highlighter to refine three face shapes!
    • Cheekbones protruding diamond-shaped face: the main problem is the protruding cheekbones and sunken temples, so we mainly focus on these two points to improve it.
    • Central sunken face: the main problem is that some areas of the face are sunken, so let's improve the sunken areas and let the sunken areas stand out and become the same brightness as the original skin.
    • Flat face: the face needs to give a sense of three-dimensionality, then it is necessary to focus on the repair and highlighting.
  • I used to have a serious anterior pelvic tilt, but I didn’t realise it, but only after working out did I discover the problem. A class of rehabilitation training worth 800 yuan and I had 8.
  • Here is the way to improve the ribcage exostosis, very useful and effective. This note is to share the corrective training method with you. Try to practice at home and pay more attention to it every day, and it can be corrected completely.

Among the ‘science-adjacent’ medical terms produced by Xiaohongshu users, adjectives play an important role. They deliver positive or negative affective meanings and channel meanings that benefit advertisements. Most descriptions of the body convey an objective, observative, clinical tone by applying medical terms. Underlying such utterances is an entrenched habitual sense of objectification of body. This epistemology of dualism and materialism is reflexed and reinforced through medical terminology, and it constitutes a naturalized discourse underneath sociocultural determinants of the interpretation of body image and disturbance, as ‘self-objectification increases the risk of being negatively affected by idealized images.’(Monro and Huon, 2005). This mechanism is always closely tied to aesthetic concerns, rather than health by scientific medical measurement. Consequently, self-objectification leads to pathologization and the idealized image is created to sell an artificial solution.

From common users to interest-holders (KOLs, KOCs, advertising agencies, companies in the beauty industry or medical, surgical and pharmaceutical services), the usage of language largely encourages pathologization. These descriptive medical words are always followed by recommended solutions in the examined posts. In the opposition between an unhealthy body and idealized healthy body, the interest-driven marketing and advertising industry lurks as the most agentic, active subject, with a clear Problem-Solution pattern in advertising (Hoey 1983). The mediascape displays a range of messages about women’s appearance and body image through medical terms, and there is a large proportion implying female body is in some way inadequate and the solution is certain appropriate products (Ringrow, 2016).

Idealized image as opposed to those pathologized normal body traits is of strong symbolic function. The efficacity of signs is rooted in the intersubjective investment in body capitals. The advanced, perfect body ‘becomes the bulwark against social insecurity’ with ‘the awareness for capacity building and the acceptance of the requirements of neoliberal socioeconomic structures’. In the meantime, the ideal body evokes the ‘maladaptive perfectionism’ and ‘critical self-evaluation’(Levinson, 2013) — which explains why in almost every post, there is negative emotional expression. Therefore, the matrix of social appearance anxiety and the correlated social currents of neoliberalism can be deployed for further analysis.

Language as a Bonding Agent

In the use of medical terms and the making of scientific fact, ‘language functions as a kind of bonding agent’ (Germon, 2014). The situated meanings hinge on our shared reality to the point they possess precise rhetorical power, which, as is often the case, can draw women into the market world. The intertextual medical terms too often go hand in hand with commercials, just as medical discourse colludes with the neoliberal ideology behind it.

It has previously been observed that commercials functions in a way that first lowers women’s self-perception and then delivers relief from the sense of negation through the products. As a marketing tactic, anxiety-arousing messages always generate results. When no one can really be an owner of the ideal body, the social appearance anxiety prevails with the help of the increasing naturalised medical discourse.

The internalized emotions are embodied and drive these individuals to resort to commodities. The solution is provided, directly or implicitly, with such a tacit advertising approach — to create insecurity and to turn it into self-actualization, ‘which means personal growth by developing resilience and adapting to change. ‘Change requires purchase. The body is reassessed and ‘understood as “positive challenges” that must be actively addressed’ in this manner (Chandler and Reid, 2016). This pursuit can be interpreted as ‘functional status demand’ when the female body is mediated by representation as a prestige good. The body manifests itself as ‘a virtually unlimited demand for medical, surgical, and pharmaceutical services — a compulsive demand linked to narcissistic investment in the body/(part) object’ (Hirst and Reekie, 2013). More importantly, such a status demand is more associated with individualist social mobility, personalization and self-branding, rather than the universal human interest in health.


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