Recently, selfies of women stretching their arms around their bodies to do the "belly button challenge" went viral in China, accumulating over 21 million hits for the hashtag. The test — derived from an "unknown study" from the U.S. — allegedly determines whether or not you need to lose weight. The logic goes like this: You're in the clear if your right arm can reach the left side of your navel from the back. As many news sites have already proceeded to tell you, this "challenge" is totally bogus. Whether or not you can complete the deed has to do with your flexibility and arm length more than anything else. Still, the unstoppable traction and widespread media attention it has received beg the question, to quote one commenter on Elle.com: "Why do some girls fall for dumb shit?" To fully understand how this Chinese meme came to be, you'll have to go back two millennia in history. The pursuit of a tiny waistline dates back to the Zhou dynasty and King Chu Ling's preference for women with slender torsos. His very singular standards for physical beauty ultimately caused the deaths of many of his subordinates. As a poem from the 5th century BC chronicled, droves of women engaged in extreme waist-cinching and eventually starved to death in efforts to appeal to the emperor. The phrase chu yao xian xi (楚腰纤细) — which translates to "a woman's thin, delicate midriff" — derived from Chu's obsession.
Nowadays, the pressure to be thin comes from sources far more nuanced than a monarch preoccupied with waistlines. Most clothing sold within China is one-size-fits-all. The exceptions to the rule are usually labeled several sizes bigger than their American counterparts. (As a reference, this writer wears a U.S. size 4 and can only buy clothes marked L or XL in China). The qualities of the ideal Chinese woman are perfectly summed up by the slang baifumei (白富美), meaning: pale-skinned, rich, and beautiful. An internet survey conducted by Sohu informed us that the physical standards for a baifumei are to stand 5'2" to 5'7" tall and weigh between 99 and 120 pounds. For many Chinese women, the motivation for weight loss does not stem from the need for a healthier lifestyle, but rather, the desire to fit into prettier clothes and become part of a covetable social group. Visit any entertainment or women's-interest site in China, and the shocking amount of body shaming will be instantly apparent: Offensive labels like "bucket waist" and "elephant legs" are regularly used to describe female celebrities who are nowhere near overweight. From circling actresses' double chins to documenting how much they eat through paparazzi shots, these sensationalized stories perpetuate the notion that a woman's figure is a topic open for speculation. Anyone from a distant relative to someone on the internet holds the right to publicly scrutinize and police your weight. As a result, many millennial women in China have been conditioned to think that obsessing over thinness is perfectly normal. Many hashtagged "炫腹" ("showing off my stomach") on their "successful" attempts at the belly button challenge. This fitness and dieting Weibo account — with half a million followers and counting — has a social media handle that literally translates to "get skinny or die".
For many Chinese women, the motivation for weight loss does not stem from the need for a healthier lifestyle, but rather, the desire to become part of a covetable social group.
Given all the historical and social context, it's understandable why many Chinese women took it very personally when they "failed" the challenge — like with the harrowing Instagram caption above. Beijing Morning Post reported that a 24-year-old woman in Chongqing dislocated her shoulder from repeated attempts to reach her belly button. Even with many media outlets calling BS on the test, the uploads are still rolling in. What's worse, a new fad called "the clavicle challenge" — where women try to hold a stack of coins on their clavicles, presumably to prove how skeletal they are — is quietly picking up steam. It's important to stress that there is no singular "trick" or statistic to determine a person's health — not even the BMI. Your health can only be measured by a doctor who has knowledge of your medical history and has carefully examined your vitals. Simply letting these social media fads — from the thigh gap to the finger-trap test — pass us by, without discrediting the culture they came from, might be the heathiest way to navigate the situation.