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The ugly side of China’s beauty consumption boom

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The ugly side of China’s beauty consumption boom

The two young Chinese women who write the China-focused Elephant Room newsletter take a deep and personal dive into the obsession with “beauty consumerism” among their peers. While the headline numbers of the industry boom in China are widely touted — a market worth nearly $3.3 billion (the world’s largest), and double-digit annual growth — there’s a troubling side to the story as well, with young women piling on debt to buy expensive makeup and skincare products from the leading international brands. In extreme cases, some have turned to prostitution or found themselves blackmailed into sharing nude photos as a result of the beauty habit, the authors report. What role does marketing play in this?

  • Women are exhorted to fight “early-aging” (初老 chū lǎo) from their late teens or early twenties, heightening nascent social anxiety over the loss of youth. “As soon as you turn 20, normal skincare products are just not enough!” reads one L’Oreal ad.
  • Upward mobility is also used to sell beauty, with the most expensive products marketed as “rich lady” (贵妇 guìfù) items.
  • Social media and paid influencers are used to create a consumer frenzy around certain products, spurring global searches for sold-out items and encouraging “bargain hunting” through overseas shopping.
  • “The Chinese are consuming so much, yet few till this day has spoken directly from the narrative of Chinese consumers on both domestic and international media,” the authors write. “We want to initiate this conversation about Chinese consumerism by starting with beauty, and hopefully going further and deeper in the future.”

—Sky Canaves, Guest Editor

Sky Canaves

Sky Canaves previously reported for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing and Hong Kong, where she covered media, culture, social issues, and legal affairs, and served as the founding editor and lead writer of the WSJ’s China Real Time site. Prior to becoming a journalist, Sky worked in the China corporate law practice of Baker & McKenzie, and she has also taught journalism and media law at the University of Hong Kong. She speaks Mandarin and has accumulated more than a decade's experience living, studying and working in China.