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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



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 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 Brands, Marketing & Consumers

Chinese Sun Protection Fashion: Move over Facekini, Here’s the Peek-a-Boo Polo

From facekini to no-face hoodie: China’s anti-tan fashion continues to evolve.

Manya Koetse



It has been ten years since the Chinese “facekini”—a head garment worn by Chinese ‘aunties’ at the beach or swimming pool to prevent sunburn—went international.

Although the facekini’s debut in French fashion magazines did not lead to an international craze, it did turn the term “facekini” (脸基尼), coined in 2012, into an internationally recognized word.

The facekini went viral in 2014.

In recent years, China has seen a rise in anti-tan, sun-protection garments. More than just preventing sunburn, these garments aim to prevent any tanning at all, helping Chinese women—and some men—maintain as pale a complexion as possible, as fair skin is deemed aesthetically ideal.

As temperatures are soaring across China, online fashion stores on Taobao and other platforms are offering all kinds of fashion solutions to prevent the skin, mainly the face, from being exposed to the sun.

One of these solutions is the reversed no-face sun protection hoodie, or the ‘peek-a-boo polo,’ a dress shirt with a reverse hoodie featuring eye holes and a zipper for the mouth area.

This sun-protective garment is available in various sizes and models, with some inspired by or made by the Japanese NOTHOMME brand. These garments can be worn in two ways—hoodie front or hoodie back. Prices range from 100 to 280 yuan ($13-$38) per shirt/jacket.

The no-face hoodie sun protection shirt is sold in various colors and variations on Chinese e-commerce sites.

Some shops on Taobao joke about the extreme sun-protective fashion, writing: “During the day, you don’t know which one is your wife. At night they’ll return to normal and you’ll see it’s your wife.”

On Xiaohongshu, fashion commenters note how Chinese sun protective clothing has become more extreme over the past few years, with “sunburn protection warriors” (防晒战士) thinking of all kinds of solutions to avoid a tan.

Although there are many jokes surrounding China’s “sun protection warriors,” some people believe they are taking it too far, even comparing them to Muslim women dressed in burqas.

Image shared on Weibo by @TA们叫我董小姐, comparing pretty girls before (left) and nowadays (right), also labeled “sunscreen terrorists.”

Some Xiaohongshu influencers argue that instead of wrapping themselves up like mummies, people should pay more attention to the UV index, suggesting that applying sunscreen and using a parasol or hat usually offers enough protection.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

A Brew of Controversy: Lu Xun and LELECHA’s ‘Smoky’ Oolong Tea

Chinese tea brand LELECHA faced backlash for using the iconic literary figure Lu Xun to promote their “Smoky Oolong” milk tea, sparking controversy over the exploitation of his legacy.

Manya Koetse



It seemed like such a good idea. For this year’s World Book Day, Chinese tea brand LELECHA (乐乐茶) put a spotlight on Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881-1936), one of the most celebrated Chinese authors the 20th century and turned him into the the ‘brand ambassador’ of their special new “Smoky Oolong” (烟腔乌龙) milk tea.

LELECHA is a Chinese chain specializing in new-style tea beverages, including bubble tea and fruit tea. It debuted in Shanghai in 2016, and since then, it has expanded rapidly, opening dozens of new stores not only in Shanghai but also in other major cities across China.

Starting on April 23, not only did the LELECHA ‘Smoky Oolong” paper cups feature Lu Xun’s portrait, but also other promotional materials by LELECHA, such as menus and paper bags, accompanied by the slogan: “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” (“老烟腔,新青年”). The marketing campaign was a joint collaboration between LELECHA and publishing house Yilin Press.

Lu Xun featured on LELECHA products, image via Netease.

The slogan “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” is a play on the Chinese magazine ‘New Youth’ or ‘La Jeunesse’ (新青年), the influential literary magazine in which Lu’s famous short story, “Diary of a Madman,” was published in 1918.

The design of the tea featuring Lu Xun’s image, its colors, and painting style also pay homage to the era in which Lu Xun rose to prominence.

Lu Xun (pen name of Zhou Shuren) was a leading figure within China’s May Fourth Movement. The May Fourth Movement (1915-24) is also referred to as the Chinese Enlightenment or the Chinese Renaissance. It was the cultural revolution brought about by the political demonstrations on the fourth of May 1919 when citizens and students in Beijing paraded the streets to protest decisions made at the post-World War I Versailles Conference and called for the destruction of traditional culture[1].

In this historical context, Lu Xun emerged as a significant cultural figure, renowned for his critical and enlightened perspectives on Chinese society.

To this day, Lu Xun remains a highly respected figure. In the post-Mao era, some critics felt that Lu Xun was actually revered a bit too much, and called for efforts to ‘demystify’ him. In 1979, for example, writer Mao Dun called for a halt to the movement to turn Lu Xun into “a god-like figure”[2].

Perhaps LELECHA’s marketing team figured they could not go wrong by creating a milk tea product around China’s beloved Lu Xun. But for various reasons, the marketing campaign backfired, landing LELECHA in hot water. The topic went trending on Chinese social media, where many criticized the tea company.

Commodification of ‘Marxist’ Lu Xun

The first issue with LELECHA’s Lu Xun campaign is a legal one. It seems the tea chain used Lu Xun’s portrait without permission. Zhou Lingfei, Lu Xun’s great-grandson and president of the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation, quickly demanded an end to the unauthorized use of Lu Xun’s image on tea cups and other merchandise. He even hired a law firm to take legal action against the campaign.

Others noted that the image of Lu Xun that was used by LELECHA resembled a famous painting of Lu Xun by Yang Zhiguang (杨之光), potentially also infringing on Yang’s copyright.

But there are more reasons why people online are upset about the Lu Xun x LELECHA marketing campaign. One is how the use of the word “smoky” is seen as disrespectful towards Lu Xun. Lu Xun was known for his heavy smoking, which ultimately contributed to his early death.

It’s also ironic that Lu Xun, widely seen as a Marxist, is being used as a ‘brand ambassador’ for a commercial tea brand. This exploits Lu Xun’s image for profit, turning his legacy into a commodity with the ‘smoky oolong’ tea and related merchandise.

“Such blatant commercialization of Lu Xun, is there no bottom limit anymore?”, one Weibo user wrote. Another person commented: “If Lu Xun were still alive and knew he had become a tool for capitalists to make money, he’d probably scold you in an article. ”

On April 29, LELECHA finally issued an apology to Lu Xun’s relatives and the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation for neglecting the legal aspects of their marketing campaign. They claimed it was meant to promote reading among China’s youth. All Lu Xun materials have now been removed from LELECHA’s stores.

Statement by LELECHA.

On Chinese social media, where the hot tea became a hot potato, opinions on the issue are divided. While many netizens think it is unacceptable to infringe on Lu Xun’s portrait rights like that, there are others who appreciate the merchandise.

The LELECHA controversy is similar to another issue that went trending in late 2023, when the well-known Chinese tea chain HeyTea (喜茶) collaborated with the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum to release a special ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ (佛喜) latte tea series adorned with Buddha images on the cups, along with other merchandise such as stickers and magnets. The series featured three customized “Buddha’s Happiness” cups modeled on the “Speechless Bodhisattva” (无语菩萨), which soon became popular among netizens.

The HeyTea Buddha latte series, including merchandise, was pulled from shelves just three days after its launch.

However, the ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ success came to an abrupt halt when the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Shenzhen intervened, citing regulations that prohibit commercial promotion of religion. HeyTea wasted no time challenging the objections made by the Bureau and promptly removed the tea series and all related merchandise from its stores, just three days after its initial launch.

Following the Happy Buddha and Lu Xun milk tea controversies, Chinese tea brands are bound to be more careful in the future when it comes to their collaborative marketing campaigns and whether or not they’re crossing any boundaries.

Some people couldn’t care less if they don’t launch another campaign at all. One Weibo user wrote: “Every day there’s a new collaboration here, another one there, but I’d just prefer a simple cup of tea.”

By Manya Koetse

[1]Schoppa, Keith. 2000. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia UP, 159.

[2]Zhong, Xueping. 2010. “Who Is Afraid Of Lu Xun? The Politics Of ‘Debates About Lu Xun’ (鲁迅论争lu Xun Lun Zheng) And The Question Of His Legacy In Post-Revolution China.” In Culture and Social Transformations in Reform Era China, 257–284, 262.

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