Although Chloé Zhao’s Oscars win has largely been censored in China, one less sensitive aspect about the event has nonetheless been discussed enthusiastically. That is her very chill, no-makeup look at the awards ceremony, where she simply wore an ankle-length gown and a pair of white sneakers.
While Chinese-born Zhao is not the only, or the first female, celebrity to go for casual at such a major event, her appearance has become a hit among many Chinese feminists, who say Zhao made them feel they can also ditch cosmetics and stop appealing to mainstream beauty standards in the country.
Lydia Lin, a Beijing-based feminist blogger who advocates for children taking the surname of their mothers, said Zhao’s no-makeup look is really impressive. “Appearance anxiety is also quite serious in China. For women whose looks don’t meet male standards, there is a strong critical attitude towards them…we would often hear remarks like ‘either become skinny or die,’ or ‘being overweight is because of lack of self-discipline,'” she told Quartz. Zhao’s no-makeup look has, in comparison, allowed women to relax, and showed that they could be just like men in not caring too much about appearance, she said.
On Weibo, many users also expressed admiration for Zhao. “She didn’t wear makeup at a rather important occasion and moment of her life, which would really make many young women think: why on earth is women wearing makeup and dressing up seen as an expression of politeness at important events?” wrote Massage Bear, a female blogger with nearly 600,000 followers.
Another blogger with over 2 million followers shared screenshots of commentators criticizing Zhao for “looking too old,” or that she “should have worn some makeup,” and making “the designer gown look like some cheap stall goods.” “Obviously, it is difficult for women to escape from the commercial aesthetics and the gaze of men.” the blogger Prozacnation wrote. “As long as she appears in the public eye, she has to be beautiful.”
China has a set of rigid standards for women’s appearance, prompting online slimming challenges that encourage young girls to pursue body shapes that allow them to wear children’s clothes, or have waists with a width similar to the shorter side of a piece of A4 paper (around 21 cm).
The obsession with looking good not only derives from China’s patriarchal society, which has existed for thousands of years, but is also driven by celebrities. Recently, the mother of famous Chinese actress Liu Yun said on a popular TV program that she never allowed herself to weigh over 50 kg in the past 30 years, sparking criticism from women who say the TV station is creating body shape anxiety.
Actress Yang Mi, a household name in China, also had to apologize after she posted a picture showing herself lying on a chair with her back arching 90 degrees—some critics said she was trying to show off her unusually slim waist. Yang removed the picture shortly after posting it, and said she was being inconsiderate in sharing the posture, which could cause injuries to those who mimic it without the guidance of professional coaches.
As such, Zhao’s no-makeup look is a much-needed endorsement for women in China, where few public figures dare to break away from traditional beauty requirements. By looking at Zhao, some Chinese women could push back against the pressure to look a certain way, and also have more courage to ditch the traditional notion of a “good” woman that requires them to be submissive or less ambitious. Instead, they might finally be whoever they’d truly like to be.