When Amy Cui opened one of China’s first online shops for plus-size clothing 11 years ago, the word didn’t even exist.
“There was no such thing as ‘plus-size fashion,” says Cui, who also goes by Tang Tang. “You could only buy ‘mom clothes’ or ‘fat people clothes.’ And the only colors you could find were black, gray, blue, and white. It was unbearable for young women.”
Walking though her maze of a warehouse is a reminder of how far she—and society—have come. Her store boasts 1.1 million followers on Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce platform, and from a woman who grew up struggling to find clothes that fit her body, she now sells millions of outfits that go up to size XXXXXL.
Cui is not alone in her venture. Over the years, more plus-size clothing shops have popped up in China, spurred by growing awareness of different body shapes—and a growing market. Nearly one in four Chinese women is overweight, according to a 2015 study, compared to less than 10% in 1980.
“There was no such thing as ‘plus-size fashion.’ You could only buy ‘mom clothes’ or ‘fat people clothes.’”
But fat-shaming is still common, and people tend not to mince their words when talking about overweight people. Using the word “fat” is socially acceptable, and friends often comment on each other’s body shapes.
Even strangers can chime in. Cui says her friend was once stopped by an elderly man who exclaimed to her face, “Wow, you’re so fat.”
In a country that still prizes skinniness above all else, the pressure to slim down is high. Baidu Baike, China’s rough equivalent of Wikipedia, even has a section on how to lose weight under its entry for “fat people.”
With so much societal pressure, Cui is pleased that her clothes can help boost young women’s self-esteem. They were designed to do so. Her shop keeps up with the trendiest colors of the season, and the clothes are tailored to flatter plus-size women’s different body shapes.
“Confidence is beauty,” Cui says.
Her brand has inadvertently created a community of young plus-size women. On Taobao, her models interact with fans through livestreams and engage in conversations with them. Zhang Keke, one of her current models, says she followed the brand for years before deciding to travel across the country and come work for it.
Yet when I ask Cui if she has any advice for young plus-size women, her target customers, she does not hesitate to suggest they lose weight.
“I’d rather you not buy my clothes. I’m okay with that.”
“I’d rather you not buy my clothes,” she says. “I’m okay with that.”
Her answer shows just how deeply ingrained the social stigma around plus-size women is in China. When I first set out to do this story, I wanted to explore the question of whether body positivity was becoming a thing there.
But after interviewing several women, my sense is that while plus-size fashion as an online industry has risen over the past decade, body positivity is still on shakier ground.
(Read more: Why more Chinese women are wearing suits)
When the cameras stop rolling, Cui and I chat more at length about her conflicted feelings.
On the one hand, she wants to encourage other plus-size women to feel confident and dignified, and she welcomes any media coverage about how the community is lifting its head up. (The added benefit, of course, is that more people buy her clothes.)
But on the other hand, she genuinely hopes they can lose weight because she has seen how society can be unkind and doesn’t want anyone to go through the same painful experiences.
At one point, Cui asks her assistant, Lin Qiqi, if she thinks society is kinder to them now.
Without hesitation, Lin, a 25-year-old plus-size woman, says yes.
“I’m fat, but I’m pretty happy.”
“I’m fat,” she says, “but I’m pretty happy.”
I see Cui’s eyes light up. She can’t stop expressing her disbelief as Lin describes how she’s never had a traumatizing experience because of her body shape, how her friends and family don’t fat-shame her, and how she fights back when online trolls comment on her photos.
“You’re so lucky,” Cui says.
The term “body positivity” still doesn’t exist in China—people refer to more general phrases like “positive energy” (正能量)—but as I watched the two women talk about their experiences of being plus-size in China, I saw the generational difference between how they view the social pressure to lose weight.
Lin may not have the vocabulary for it yet, but she already embodies the grace and confidence of someone who is content in her own body and not afraid to show it.