In China, Women Are Defying ‘Beauty Duty’ — With a Bold Haircut
When Song Jiaqian passed the Teacher’s Certification Exam last year, she treated herself to an unconventional yet daring reward: She got a buzz cut.
So bold was the 23-year-old’s choice that she had to delay getting it until after securing her government job in Shandong, the eastern province known for its Confucian values and traditional way of life. She even asked colleagues if anyone had been fired for drastic changes in hairstyle, but fortunately found no precedent.
“People are always saying that you should look like a woman, but what does that even mean?” Song told Sixth Tone. “I am a woman. And I look like a woman, because I am one.”
Her decision reflects a growing trend among young women in China, where long hair is often associated with femininity and beauty. While some are now choosing to buzz their hair off to challenge traditional standards and promote gender equality, others simply find it practical and low-maintenance.
Their reasons notwithstanding, the style is quickly catching on, with more and more women ditching long locks for a shorn style. Says Song: “Why do girls have to listen to others and be gentle and quiet, and obedient in particular? I just don’t want to obey the rules.”
Over the last three years, a group on the social platform Douban, called “Women’s Buzz Cuts are Super Cool,” has gained a considerable following.
Established in March 2021, the group now boasts more than 4,500 members. It also includes three sections: “questions before buzz cut,” “posts after buzz cut,” and “anti-beauty duty and male gaze.” It offers women who have a buzz cut or are planning to get one a safe space to discuss their choices and support each other.
Buzz cuts emerged even earlier on the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu. Starting in 2019, several posts show women flaunting buzz cuts in a bid to inspire others to “boldly make a change.” Song was one of them. She is still active on the platform and now shares her experiences to encourage others.
As Chinese society continues to grapple with beauty standards, buzz cuts are just one of the many trends helping women push back.
In March 2022, a hashtag called “embrace beauty without makeup” went viral on domestic social media platforms, where women posted images of themselves with no makeup.
Before that, in 2020, social appearance anxiety — in the wake of trends such as “A4 waist” and “belly button challenges” and the emergence of ultra-small size brands — triggered fierce, widespread debate across social media, particularly among young women. Ever since, many consciously got rid of their lipstick and high heels in a bid to embrace individuality.
But the drastic step of getting a buzz cut sets it apart from other acts that defy beauty standards. It’s why some take years to work up the nerve, particularly women who’ve had to confront parents. For others, it’s a deliberate rejection of the male gaze, and a catalyst for a more profound introspection on gender identity and expression.
The final cut
Once assured that it wouldn’t cost her the job, Song turned to persuading her mother about her hair, or rather the lack of it.
It was July, and using the hot weather at the time in Shandong as a pretext, she convinced her mother to allow her to shave just the back of her head. “I was halfway there,” she says.
A week later, she was at the salon again to finish the job.
Her barber was taken aback. “He asked me, ‘are you serious? Did something happen to you?’” Song recalls. He eventually buzzed it all off, but did it cautiously, cutting only one bit at a time, just in case she changed her mind halfway.
It was a decision four years in the making. Back in her freshman year, she mentioned buzz cuts once to her classmates, but no one took it seriously. “They thought I was joking. They believed no one would do it,” Song says.
At the time, she simply wanted to try something new. “I was still young. I knew my hair would grow back again, and that it was nothing. I just wanted to try it even if it was only for a new experience.”
Han Chu, a junior student in the southern city of Guangzhou, worked up the nerve after a monthslong struggle with herself. Like Song, she, too, wanted a buzz cut since high school.
An eventful trip last summer proved the tipping point. While on the trip, a friend constantly took photos of her while insisting that she alter her hairstyle.
“My friend suggested that I redo my hair so it would cover part of my square face. I wondered why they would say this to me?” she recalls. That comment made her decision easier.
“I looked at the boys around me, I felt they were very relaxed,” she says. After contemplating it for eight months, Han cut her hair in February.
Regardless of the motives behind it, Han believes that a buzz cut is often a clear reflection of a feminist stance. She sees her own hairstyle as a bold statement of her beliefs and a powerful symbol of empowerment. “It’s a very clear attitude,” she says.
This attitude is now trickling down to younger generations, like 16-year-old Zi Chen who also recently got a buzz cut. “The rise of feminism has become a trend, so everyone wants to follow it,” says Zi.
Zi explains that her decision to shave her hair was influenced by her perspective on “anti-beauty duty” — a concept that emerged only last year and refutes the idea that women are obliged to maintain their appearance.
“At the time, I was likely fulfilling my ‘beauty duty,’ particularly since I was also struggling with being overweight during my adolescence. I felt anxious about my appearance,” she told Sixth Tone.
But cutting off her hair changed everything. “I felt like I belonged to the category of boys and it helped end the ‘beauty duty.’ Most people don’t care about a man’s appearance or figure, they only care about how women look,” she says.
Bai Meijiadai, a lecturer at Liaoning University’s School of Journalism and Communication, says that most Chinese girls are restricted from dressing freely in high school. And so when they enter university, they enjoy the freedom to embrace new styles.
“They also start browsing beauty makeup videos online, which sets the standards for women’s appearance,” she says.
She believes trends like “anti-beauty duty” emerged in the wake of movements across the world. “At the same time, international movements such as ‘Me Too’ in 2017 and, later, South Korea’s ‘Escape the Corset’ in 2018 had an impact on women in China and provoked them to rebel against restrictive beauty standards imposed by a patriarchal society,” she says.
However, Bai expressed concerns about buzz cuts being linked to feminism. “There is a gap between this trend and historical debates about women’s liberation. Many followers of this trend are not necessarily aware of related theories and movements,” she says.
But she did acknowledge its symbolic significance. “It is positive to let diversity exist, and this act will help people realize that a buzz cut is not an unfeminine look.”
Cause and effect
For Wang Meng, a buzz cut just made practical sense: The water pressure in her hometown in the central Hunan province was unstable. It made washing her long hair incredibly inconvenient.
“The water pressure was not very reliable in the village, and I often had to go to someone else’s house to wash my hair. I counted the days to wash my hair every day. It was really troublesome, so I decided to cut my hair,” she recalls.
But it wasn’t easy convincing her parents. “My parents always judged my appearance. They always asked why my hair was always so loose at home, or why I always wear untidy clothes.”
After one such quarrel, Wang, on impulse, walked into a barber shop and had her hair shaved off.
To her surprise, the buzz cut had the opposite effect on her parents. “I had told them about a buzz cut before, and they reacted fiercely. But after I got it, they said nothing, just took it easy,” says Wang. “We’ve even started showing each other more respect.”
Most others aren’t as fortunate.
In Shandong, Song’s experiences after a buzz cut were no different. “In real life, people make guesses based on two aspects: one, that you are ill and have to get a haircut. Or they feel you are reacting to being emotionally hurt,” she says.
Han recalled that after cutting her hair, her mother refused to answer her video calls for a month. “I sensed that my mother didn’t want to talk to me. She just pretended to be busy at work and didn’t want to argue with me about this,” she says.
But though she had anticipated resistance from her parents before getting a buzz cut, she hadn’t considered disapproval from strangers after.
Han, a fitness buff, was out running on one occasion and noticed men around her staring and discussing her appearance. Instinctively, she walked up to them and stared back.
“I am not afraid of such conflicts,” she says. “I believe that to some extent, everyone is relatively restrained and rational, and they may choose to shut up immediately.”
Attitude is everything
In stark contrast to women in China, 23-year-old Bai Bai’s experience of getting a buzz cut last Christmas while studying in the UK was relatively easier.
“Here, there aren’t many women with a buzz cut. But then, nobody would care even if you do get one,” she told Sixth Tone, using a pseudonym to protect her privacy.
Bai Bai made the decision after her final exams: She was in a bad mood and felt the urge to cut her hair. “I felt my life was stuck in a kind of whirlpool, and I wanted to change it. I thought changing my hairstyle, while a relatively straightforward approach, also offered a significant change. It didn’t take long to make up my mind,” she recalls.
But halfway around the world, Bai Bai’s parents disapproved. “I didn’t expect them to react this strongly,” she says. “My mom didn’t speak to me for almost a month. I guess she was concerned that I had become gay.”
Their staunch objection and and her pessimism about the strict work environment in China made Bai Bai realize that her year abroad might be her only chance to try a buzz cut.
“If such a hairstyle would hinder my job prospects, I think I may just give in and not keep the buzz cut. That I have to follow such rules makes me sad. But there is no way to change it,” she rues.
But for many, the transformative power of buzz cuts is undeniable: not only in appearance, but also in attitude.
According to Song, her confidence in herself grew exponentially since she got the buzz cut, and it helped her become more open to different opinions and perspectives.
“I even gave speeches at work with this kind of confidence. I never did this before. I was very concerned about what others thought of me. But now, it doesn’t bother me anymore.”
After shaving off her hair, she explains that most people intuitively believe that she looks like a boy. However, she is no longer affected by it. Instead she now plans on going completely bald next.
She says: “My haircut is my own business. I just want to cheer myself up, and there’s no need for anyone else to agree with my aesthetic values.”
(Header image: Portraits of women who recently got buzz cuts. Courtesy of the interviewees)