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Freedom of Dress or Child Sexualization? China’s “Milky-Spicy Style” Fashion Trend Sparks Online Debate

An entire online economy has developed around the ‘Milky-Spicy Trend,’ which is embraced by some parents highlighting its innocence while disregarding potential negative consequences.

Zilan Qian

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Some parents think it’s cute, others think it is funny. Dressing children in tight dresses and grown-up attire has evolved into a trend evident in the numerous e-commerce stores showcasing an array of adult-like clothing options for kids. But recently, Chinese media outlets and social media commenters are pointing out the dangers behind the trend.

Backless dresses, off-shoulder tops, high heels… Within China, the once-trending “spicy girl style” has extended its impact from young adults to children, sparking debates over the rise of the controversial “Milky-Spicy Style” trend. Tender-aged girls, some as young as four or five, are now seen wearing revealing and alluring attire, echoing mature fashion selections.

On Chinese social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu, bloggers are sharing advice on styling children, mostly young girls around the age of five, to portray a sense of “hotness” or grown-up allure. Many of these outfits simply emulate clothing designed for adult women and seem to be all about pleasing adults rather than being suitable and comfortable for young children.

By now, the clothing style has come to be known as “milky spicy,” combining the character for “milk” (奶), often used in words referring to child-like and sweet or innocent things, and “spicy” (辣) simply meaning “hot” or “sexy.”

The phrase “milky-spicy style” (nǎilàfēng 奶辣风) has even gained traction as a slogan on e-commerce platforms, where numerous vendors market children’s clothing featuring revealing or form-fitting outfits, often using carefully positioned images of young models.

Photos taken of young models from certain angles that would be more suitable for adult photos.

Chinese state media outlet People’s Daily recently published an opinion piece on its online platform, titled “People’s Daily Online’s Commentary on the Trend of ‘Milky-Spicy Style'” (#人民网评奶辣风流行#). The article addressed concerns about the emergence of this new fashion trend, asserting that it potentially exploits young children by capitalizing on the contrast between their sexualized attire and their innocent appearances in order to gain attention.

Example of “milky-spicy style” trend, source.

The article cautioned parents against blindly embracing this trend, highlighting the potential negative impact of fostering unhealthy mindsets that encourage young girls to seek attention through these kinds of mature clothing choices.

This perspective garnered support from various media outlets, including Xinjin News, Beijing Daily, and Guangming Daily, all reiterating that promoting provocative clothing for young girls is an unhealthy trend.

 
Pro Milky-Spicy Style: Defending Freedom of Dress
 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opinion piece has triggered a backlash from individuals who prioritize “clothing freedom” (穿衣自由) and female self-expression, rather than focusing on the potential risks associated with children wearing age-inappropriate attire. They perceive the criticism of the “milky-spicy style” as a move to exert authority over women’s bodies and encroach upon their right to dress as they choose.

Examples of “Milky-Spicy Style” included in the Weibo post by People Daily Online.

One netizen characterizes the perspective presented by People’s Daily as form of ‘mansplaining’ (“爹味说教”), implying that the text is condescending and disregards the freedom of girls and women to choose their attire without being concerned about men’s opinions.

One Weibo user accusing People.com for arrogantly and self-righteously criticizing women’s dressing, scrutinizing and controlling their freedom.

Others consider the concern about sexualizing children’s bodies to be an unnecessary interpretation rooted in the long-standing “patriarchal gaze” prevalent in society, which they think is shaped by a male-centric lens.

They accuse those protesting the “milky-spicy style” of having an ingrained mindset that links all aspects of women’s bodies to sexuality. Under the hashtag (#人民网评奶辣风流行#), netizens are sharing a quote by famous Chinese writer Lu Xun (鲁迅): “The sight of women’s short sleeves at once makes them think of bare arms, of the naked body, the genitals, copulation, promiscuity, and bastards. This is the sole respect in which the Chinese have a lively imagination.”1

 
Anti Milky-Spicy Style: Concerns about the Sexualization of Children
 

But those supporting the recent “milky-spicy style” trend seem to be in the minority, as most people don’t agree that the concept of “freedom of dress” applies to children wearing such attire. A netizen questions, “When we talk about clothing freedom, whose freedom are we really talking about? Are these young girls actually making their own clothing choices?”

It’s apparent that the “milky-spicy style” closely imitates women’s clothing, making it unlikely that the trend is solely influenced by the preferences of four-year-old girls; instead, it seems to be parents who are imposing their preferred fashion on their kids.

Besides, the style is not only about the clothes themselves, but also about the accessories, the way these girls are photographed in certain poses, and the social media exposure that comes with it.

Photos of a young girl in tight dresses and lace tank top making poses in front of the camera (source).

An article from Legal Daily reporting about parents posting photos of their children dressed in the “milky-spicy style” also reiterates how this is about more than clothes alone. Parents publish photos of their kids while not only revealing their chests and waists but also adorning them with small clutch bags, pearl necklaces, and vivid red nail polish on their toes.

Moreover, many young girls are often guided to pose in a “sexy” manner, adopting confident hip tilts, waist twists, and shoulder positions. Certain blogs also pair these images with potentially contentious captions like “they say they want to steal my daughter” or “they say this is the style fathers don’t allow my daughter to wear.”

An e-commerce seller promoting “milky-spicy style” outfits (Screenshot by What’s on Weibo).

“It’s not about how much skin is shown; it’s about the underlying sexualization of children and the implied presence of pedophilia,” one Weibo user commented, countering the advocates of ‘clothing freedom.’

A photo posted on Xiaohongshu that specifically features the child’s leg and feet in pink pumps, with the caption “they say they want to steal my daughter” (source)

Numerous others joined the discussion, highlighting that it is the entire picure of clothes, poses, expressions, and camera angles that makes the trend problematic. “When you witness children deliberately aligning their clothing choices and behavior with adult aesthetics, it’s undoubtedly abnormal,” another Weibo user remarked, attributing the “milky-spicy style” to nothing more than the sexualization of children to cater to adult desires.

 
Beyond ‘Sharenting’
 

For years, the phenomenon of ‘sharenting’ or shàiwá (晒娃), where parents excessively share photos of their children online, has prompted concerns among experts regarding children’s right to privacy and how their parents’ social media posts about them might impact their future (read here).

However, the ‘milky-spicy’ trend takes things a step further, raising worries that it not only sexualizes children, using them as tools to generate online attention, but also sparks concerns about its potential impact on children’s mental well-being and physical health.

Some critics point out that dressing children in tight clothing is not only uncomfortable but may reduce healthy blood flow and cause irritation and pain, while walking in high heels might even hurt muscle development in growing bodies.

Moreover, this fashion trend instills the idea in children’s minds that beauty is synonymous with sexiness, and that the purpose of dressing is to please others. In its opinion piece, People’s Daily highlighted a case in a Shanghai kindergarten where the teacher reported young girls competing to wear more revealing clothes. The article remarked on the shift from children being dressed by their parents to actively wanting to wear ‘milky-spicy’ clothes: “They are no longer concerned with the beauty and comfort of the clothing itself; instead, they have learned to enjoy and pursue the psychological pleasure of being noticed and seeking attention.”

At present, stopping the trend is nearly impossible, as a complete economy has developed around this fashion style. Many parents willingly embrace it, highlighting its innocence while ignoring potential negative consequences.

However, Chinese online media discussions and state media articles do contribute to alerting parents about the possible risks of dressing their children like adults. A recent survey by the Sichuan Observer indicated that a majority of respondents find the fashion style “inappropriate.”

“Sexualizing children isn’t the same as freedom of dress,” some argue, “Precautions should be taken against predators.” But still there are many who do not see a problem: “Your kids, your choice,” some commenters express, “Though personally, I would never dress my own child like that.”

By Zilan Qian

1 From The Selected Works of Lu Xun, “一见短袖子,立刻想到白臂膊,立刻想到全裸体,立刻想到生殖器,立刻想到性交,立刻想到杂交,立刻想到私生子。中国人的想像惟在这一层能够如此跃进。”

 

This article has been edited for clarity by Manya Koetse

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Jia Ling Returns to the Limelight with New “YOLO” Movie and 110-Pound Weight Loss Announcement

After a year away from the spotlight, Chinese actress and director Jia Ling is back, announcing both a new film and slimmer figure.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese actress and director Jia Ling (贾玲) has been trending on Weibo thanks to her upcoming film YOLO (热辣滚烫) and her remarkable weight loss transformation.

Jia Ling is a famous Chinese comedian actress, known for her annual Spring Festival Gala performances. She has been especially successful in the previous years as she made her directorial debut in 2021 with the award-winning box office hit Hi, Mom (Chinese title Hi, Li Huanying 你好,李焕英), in which she also stars as the female protagonist. That same year, audiences saw her as Wu Ge in Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你).

It has been a while since we’ve heard from Jia Ling, but on January 11, she resurfaced with a Weibo post in which she explained her absence from the limelight.

In her post, Jia wrote that she has spent the entire year working on the YOLO (热辣滚烫) movie, for which she lost a staggering 100 jin (斤) (110 lbs/50 kg). Just as with Hi, Mum, Jia is both the director of YOLO and the lead actress.

According to Jia, it was a tiring and “hungry” year, during which she ended up “looking like a boxer.” She added that the movie, set to premiere during the Spring Festival, is not necessarily about weight loss at all, but about learning to love yourself.

Within a single day, Jia Ling’s post received nearly 60,000 replies and over 855,000 likes.

Jia Ling’s post on Weibo.

The topic became top trending due to various reasons. It is because fans are excited to see Jia Ling back in the limelight and are anticipating the upcoming movie, but also because they are eager to see Jia Ling’s transformation.

From fans on Weibo: Jia Ling fanart and a meme from one of her well-known Spring Festival performances.

A short scene from the movie showed Jia Ling’s slimmer appearance, and a screenshot of it went viral, with Weibo users saying they hardly recognized Jia anymore.

One hashtag related to Jia Ling’s weight loss, about expert views on losing so much weight in such a relatively short time, received over 450 million on Weibo on Thursday (#医生谈贾玲整容式暴瘦#).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, medical experts quoted by Chinese media outlets caution against rapid weight loss methods, recommending a more gradual approach instead.

Nevertheless, there is great interest in the extreme diets of Chinese celebrities. As discussed in an earlier article about China’s celebrity weight craze, the weight loss journey of Chines actors or influencers often capture widespread attention as people are keen to adopt diet plans promoted by celebrities.

YOLO (热辣滚烫), which will hit Chinese theaters on February 10, tells the story of Le Ying (乐莹), who has withdrawn from social life and isolated herself at home ever since graduation. Trying to get her life back on track, Le Ying meets a boxing coach. The meeting proves to be just the beginning of a new journey in life filled with unforeseen challenges.

The Spring Festival holiday typically sees peak box office numbers in China, making this movie highly anticipated, particularly after the success of Hi, Mum three years ago. On Weibo, many view Jia Ling’s weight loss as a testament to her dedication and are eager to see the results of her year-long efforts in the cinema next month.

By Manya Koetse

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China Digital

Too Sexy for Weibo? Online Discussions on the Concept of ‘Cābiān’

Delving into the ongoing discussion on ‘cābiān’ and its influence on women’s expression in China’s digital realm.

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Chinese social media is seeing more discussions recenty on the blurred boundaries of Cābiān. This seemingly never-ending discussion raises questions – not just about sexually suggestive content, but also about the evolving perceptions of women’s bodies and freedom in the digital age.

In the fast-moving world of China’s internet, a new term has emerged: Cābiān (擦边). Originally a sports term describing a ball grazing the edge of a table (擦边球), it now primarily refers to the delicate balance in content that may be seen as sexually suggestive, teetering on the line between ‘sexy’ and ‘sexually explicit’ in the context of China’s internet culture.

The term mainly refers to women’s behavior, style, language, and actions that are considered inappropriate or that are pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Cābiān can be understood as borderline sexual content that basically navigates the boundaries of platform rules without actually breaking them. Nevertheless, is generally seen as ‘not in line’ with what is expected of Chinese women in today’s society.

This term has sparked controversy recently, prompting fervent debates surrounding its implications for women’s self-expression.

 
Too Sexy for Weibo? Jingchuan Liyu’s Divisive Pictures
 

Social media plays a central role in the “cābiān” debate. A recent example involves a Weibo post by Jingchuan Liyu (井川里予, @悲伤荷包蛋), a prominent Chinese influencer active on Weibo and Xiaohongshu.

Jingchuan Liyu is known for embodying both innocence and sensuality in her online persona. Mainly by male netizens, she has been labeled as a symbol of “chúnyù” (纯欲). This term signifies a blend of childlike innocence (纯洁, chúnjié) and allure (欲望, yùwàng).

Jingchuan Liyu became a focal point in the cābiān debate when she posted a series of photos during the summer of this year. While these photos didn’t violate any official guidelines, they departed from her typical “innocent yet sexy” style. In these pictures, she was seen wearing thongs and other undergarments, which apparently made some social media users uneasy.

The controversy surrounding the photos intensified when Jingchuan Liyu responded to these criticisms on her Weibo page. While her supporters defended her freedom to dress as she pleases, others viewed her photos as being more about provocative sexual suggestion than about freedom of fashion.

 
Dog-Headed Lolita: Judged, Harassed, and Labeled Cābiān
 

Beyond online debates, the condemnation of “cābiān” is also having real-world consequences. One recent example is the case of the Chinese influencer known as Dog-Head Lolita (狗头萝莉 @我是狗头萝莉).

Despite having a problematic childhood, ‘Dog-Head Lolita’ managed to turn her life around and became a successful streamer. But her reputation suffered a severe blow when explicit videos of her, recorded by her ex-boyfriend, were made public.

This incident and its aftermath damaged her career and, partly due to getting cheated by her manager, was left with a staggering debt of 6 million RMB ($836K). Trying to start an alternative career, Dog-Head Lolita took up selling Chinese pancakes (jiānbǐng 煎饼) at a street stall as a means to make a living and work towards repaying her debts.

In addition to her physical labor, she also posted short videos of herself selling pancakes online and continued to livestream and engage with her followers to generate more income.

While her efforts garnered sympathy and admiration from some netizens, she also faced accusations of using her pancake-selling business as a form of cābiān.

Her choice of attire, which emphasized her figure, became a central topic of discussion. Some netizens raised questions about whether her videos, showcasing her interactions with fans while selling pancakes, carried a sexual undertone. Moreover, there were arguments suggesting that her true business wasn’t selling pancakes but rather producing sexually suggestive content.

Some critics of Dog-Head Lolita went further and turned online criticism into harassment. Some filed reports regarding the hygiene conditions of her business, while others intentionally vandalized her pancake cart and left insulting messages on it.

Facing this harassment linked to accusations of being cābiān, Dog-Head Lolita voiced her frustration on her Weibo page.

She emphasized that her physique was something beyond her control and that selling pancakes shouldn’t be judged in the same way as her previous online presence. She complained that her livelihood was being scrutinized, even in the most ordinary and innocuous settings.

 
Challenging the Concept of Cābiān
 

Defining the precise boundaries of what is and is not cābiān is not easy, as it has become a catch-all term for anything remotely sexually suggestive, erotic, or resembling “soft pornography.”

While the distinction between suggestive and non-suggestive content remains hazy, new voices have emerged to challenge the very idea of “cābiān.”

Some believe that cābiān is a societal construct imposed on women, rather than an intrinsic concept. They argue that before the term “cābiān” gained popularity, suggestive pelvic dances were widespread in China due to the prevalence of K-pop boy groups, and male celebrities could appear shirtless and flirtatious on TV without anyone accusing them of “cābiān.”

But when it comes to women, the standards of cābiān can be unclear and are often unforgiving. This term is used not only to regulate their clothing choices but also their behavior or even facial expressions—essentially, anything a woman might do.

Once a female online influencer is seen as attractive and desireable, she seemingly becomes more prone to be labeled a “cābiān nǚ” (擦边女) – a woman who is seen as flaunting her sensuality within the context of social media and online platforms.

If this trend of labeling people as sexually suggestive continues, “cābiān” might turn into an unclear social rule, resulting in ongoing moral judgments of women, especially female online influencers.

On the other hand, some netizens see the increasing acceptance of women displaying their bodies in a sensual manner as a form of female empowerment.

One notable Weibo by ‘Wang’ede’ (@王饿德) post that gained a lot of attention suggested that there is a distinction between how others interpret women’s bodies and how women themselves perceive it. The post asserts that revealing skin and wearing “sexy” clothing can be a proactive expression of women’s own desires and confidence rather than solely meaning to please a male audience.

This active pursuit is seen as a form of ‘decolonization’ of the traditional patriarchal gaze— it’s described as “a reevaluation of women’s bodies by women themselves that allows us to reclaim ownership of our bodies,” as stated by the author of the post.

 
Neverending Discussions
 

As the debates continue, Weibo users are noticing a deadlock in these online discussions. Conversations about the who, what, and why of cābiān are recurring and appear to be never-ending.

In 2019, a significant debate arose concerning the attire worn by actress Rayzha Alimjan. In 2022, controversies revolved around busty women. There was also a cyberbullying incident involving a mother who had recently lost her son in a car accident and faced criticism for wearing elegant clothing and makeup (read). Most recently, there has been a series of new discussions, ranging from criticizing the latest TV drama starring singer/actress Lai Meiyun and onwards.

Contemplating this phenomenon, some internet users are thinking about the evolution of Jingchuan Liyu’s style. A decade or two ago, her aesthetic might have been categorized as ’emo,’ ‘alternative,’ or just seen as a form of decadent beauty. However, nowadays, it is quickly subjected to examination to determine whether or not it falls into the category of cābiān.

In the eyes of many Chinese netizens, this trend is seen as a discouraging step backward. Influential bloggers repost their previous cābiān-related Weibo posts from years or even just months ago, highlighting the seemingly futile nature of these discussions.

Who will be the next woman to be branded as cābiān? Will she face online insults and offline harassment? On Weibo, some express their exhaustion at being stuck in this repetitive loop, engaging in similar debates time and time again.

Perhaps it is time to reevaluate the term “cābiān” and engage in more meaningful discussions about women’s bodies and their freedom in China. As one netizen put it on Weibo: “Maybe we should redirect this energy toward discussions that genuinely promote progress instead of endlessly revisiting these cyclic debates.”

By Ruixin Zhang

edited for clarity by Zilan Qian & Manya Koetse

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