Chinese armpit hair competition triggers online debate

Women’s rights activist Li Tingting (June 2015) Image copyright Gender in China
Image caption Women’s rights activist Li Tingting has posted a photo online showing her pride in having armpit hair

"Should I shave my armpit hair?" It is a question that often bothers Xiao Meili, a prominent women's rights activist in China.

"Girls are often anxious about their armpit hair as if it's a sign of being dirty or uncivilized," Ms Xiao said. "But we should have the freedom to choose whether to accept what grows naturally on our bodies."

Xiao Meili wanted women to take ownership of their bodies so she launched an "Armpit Hair Competition" on Weibo, China's popular micro-blog.

Having body hair is considered "manly", Ms Xiao explained, but hairless underarms are not even the traditional Chinese perception of beauty.

'Mysterious and charming'

Confucius said our bodies, hair and skin were given to us by our parents and should not be harmed.

Image copyright Gender in China
Image caption Thousands of people are taking part in the online debate about underarm hair
Image copyright Gender in China
Image caption While some argue that hairless underarms are not traditional in Chinese society, others say it is impolite not to shave

Chinese people used to consider a glimpse of women's armpit hair mysterious and charming.

The armpit hair competition cited one example of a film star growing back her armpit hair for a role she played in a movie set in 1930s China.

However, many people have challenged Ms Xiao's feminist approach to this topic.

"What is this competition? No-one forces me to shave my armpit hair. I do it because I think it's gross not to," one woman wrote on Weibo.

"It's not polite to leave your armpit hair unshaven, no matter if it's men or women," another wrote.

'Love armpit hair'

The insults and criticism were not unexpected. What was surprising was people's enthusiasm about the competition. Thousands have participated in the discussion.

Image copyright Gender in China
Image caption 'I'm a college student. I love my armpit hair. I support natural hair, confidence and equality,' this student posted
Image copyright Gender in China
Image caption Some Chinese websites are now deluged with pictures of women proudly displaying their underarms

"I'm a college student. I love my armpit hair. I support natural hair, confidence and equality," one participant wrote alongside a photo of her leaning against her dormitory bed with her arms in the air.

Li Tingting, another women's rights activist, posted a photo of her half-naked body showing her armpit hair and characters saying "punish domestic violence and love armpit hair".

She was released on parole only recently after being detained with four other activists. They were held in police custody for more than a month for organising a protest to raise awareness of sexual harassment and domestic violence.

"I think this competition is very meaningful. Consumerism is gender-based. The market is filled with all kinds of shaving products for women," Ms Li said.

"We need some space to think about why women are obliged to shave ourselves."

Still closely monitored by police as "suspect", Ms Li also wanted to make a point with her naked body.

"Men walk around half naked in China all the time, why can't women?" she asked. "For women, we need to free our minds and our bodies.

"For me, my body is my battlefield," Ms Li asserts.

Related Topics