Body shaming exhibit hits home for curator
Fitness challenges such as "wrap your arm around your waist and touch your belly button" and "coin layered collarbone" as well as hashtags like "square shoulders," "manga waist" and "slim legs like a K-pop idol" have burst onto China's social platforms, which are meant to show off a fit figure, according to some users who nailed the challenge or have certain body features.
The bizarre trend also stirs up criticism as many are concerned it might lead to people's misconception about beauty, health and weight. Some netizens who express strong disapproval of the trend even call it "a new wave of body shaming" and warn that it could promote unhealthy eating or even eating disorder.
To tackle body shaming and raise awareness of eating disorder, Qinwe curated an exhibition entitled "About Body Shaming" at the Shanghai Himalaya Art Museum, the first exhibition on eating disorders in China.
A total of 28 multi-talented young artists who have experienced eating disorders bring their masterpieces in forms of painting, video and photography, poems, installations and art crafts.
Displayed in the dim light, every single piece tells a story of its author's inner struggles and reflects their thoughts of self-objectification, food consumption and society's morbid standards of beauty, usually known as the desire of skinny body shape, young appearance and light skintone.
"Our world today is full of the bizarre," said the 24-year-old curator who goes by one name, noting that the consumerism creates a type of anxiety that stimulates people's needs to look better in the photo, in the mirror, on the Internet and in others' perspectives.
And this kind of anxiety can frequently lead to the development of an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are highly distinctive psychiatric disorders that typically begin in adolescence or early adulthood.
Current diagnostic conceptualizations of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder, pica and rumination disorder.
The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide 70 million people have an eating disorder. Lifetime prevalence statistics suggest that about 0.4 percent of women and 0.04 percent of men will meet criteria for anorexia during their lifetimes.
The disabling, deadly, and costly mental disorders that considerably impair physical health and disrupt psychosocial functioning have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to Lancet.
"Eating disorders are serious illnesses with devastating consequences," said Catherine Pawley, a British TED talker and anorexia survivor.
In China, regional reports and studies have shown that in the past decade, there has been a continuous increase in the number of teenagers with eating disorders, and the number in Hong Kong is approximating those in Western countries.
"The number of patients of eating disorders triples every year in China," noted Chen Jue, director of the Eating Disorders Center at the Shanghai Mental Health Center. "They are getting younger, and many girls avoid seeking mental help."
The medical resources available to each person are still limited in China, as there are only two specialist centers for eating disorders in the country – the Shanghai Mental Health Center and the Peking University Sixth Hospital.
And precautions against eating disorders are needed.
"There isn't enough awareness around eating disorders as a whole and the kind of people that they can effect," said Qinwen.
Exposed to social pressure of thinness, comparison to others and under the influence of social media, Qinwen started trying to lose weight in high school. After gaokao, China's National College Entrance Examination, she fell into the dangerous trap of using methods like self-starvation and excessive exercise to shed weight. She went through a long period of dietary restriction and would routinely skip meals, claim not to be hungry and even hide food in her sleeves and pockets when dinning with friends.
One day, the young girl found age spots on her arms, while suffering from other symptoms such as skin peeling, hair loss and lack of energy. In 2018, she only weighed 28.8 kilograms and was committed to the intensive care unit. The doctor said she was critically ill with multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.
"My mind kept telling me to skip meals and eating became the most difficult thing for me," recalled Qinwen.
She later fell into an intense binging session, which is common for those who go long periods restricting food or starving. She ate cat food and frozen pizza, and drank peanut butter and ketchup in the middle of the night just to compensate for the deficiencies due to anorexia.
"Anorexia and binge-eating usually happen alternately," she said. "I completely lost track of my diet and went from anorexia to binge eating. Food seemed like a demon to me at that time."
The self-determined curator gradually picked herself up with help from professionals, friends and her beloved family. She started to share her journey of fighting eating disorders on social media platforms with handle "少女神婆婆" and founded advocacy group "ED Healer" to popularize life-saving knowledge and help more people live a healthy life.
Qinwen has integrated the theme of body shaming and eating disorder with documentaries, TED Talks, forums and pop-up fairs. And with the culmination of nearly two years of preparation, she managed in presenting the issue in the form of art and curated the pioneering exhibition.
"I wish more people get to know eating disorders through this exhibition. And I hope to break the norms of contemporary art and make it social problem-solving," she said.
On the day the exhibition debuted, Qinwen and her female teammates in bridal veils stood among the artworks in the museum for the "Self-marriage ceremony," as a deep act for self-acceptance. "All the girls in my team had said that they once lived in self-denial and were stressed by exterior factors," said Qinwen. "After all the thick and thin, we would all love to attend the ceremony and tell ourselves that 'we love and embrace ourselves.'"
The "About Body Shaming" exhibition, which runs until June 14, is a perfect closure for Qinwen, who has been struggling with eating disorders for five years. She will collaborate with universities in China and provide more access to knowledge of eating disorders.
"This topic (body shaming and eating disorders) offers me an opportunity to help others, but it has also brought me so much pain," she said. "I wish this exhibition could be a farewell to the past and I will start a brand new life, a cozy, happy and less stressed one that I've always dreamed of."
"The world and aesthetics is diverse. Bodies come in all different shapes and sizes and they are not the only thing that matters," said Qinwen. "I hope more people could listen to their heart, respect their strengths and live a healthy lifestyle."
Date: Through June 14, 10am-6pm (closed on Mondays)
Tickets: Single ticket 68 yuan, duo ticket 108 yuan
Venue: 3M, Shanghai Himalaya Art Museum
Address: 869 Yinghua Rd, Pudong New Area
For more information, you can search "少女神婆婆" on weibo.com and bilibili.com, and follow WeChat official account: ED Healer.
Top eating disorders treatment centers in China:
Shanghai Mental Health Center
Address: 600 Wanping Rd S.
Peking University Sixth Hospital
Address: 51 Huayuan Rd N., Haidian District, Beijing