Chinese feminists show off armpit hair in photo contest

Story highlights

  • More than 40 Chinese feminists upload photos of their armpit hair
  • Organizer says hair issue represents principle of gender equality

Beijing (CNN)In the fight against domestic violence and gender inequality, Chinese feminists have opened up a new battlefront: Their armpits.

They ask, why should women have to shave their pits when men are never expected to?
    To subvert the double standard, feminist Xiao Meili, 25, started an armpit hair photo contest on Chinese social network Weibo.
    Dozens of women have participated, including three of the five feminists briefly arrested in March over a protest for gender equality. The participants sent in selfies and glamor shots with their arms proudly raised, revealing natural hair underneath.
    "Women should have the right to decide how to deal with their bodies, including small details like armpit hair," Xiao tells CNN. "You can choose to shave it, but you shouldn't be forced to do so under the pressure of stereotypes."
    Six winners will be selected from the photo competition, which ends Wednesday. Prizes include condoms, vibrators and a pedestal urinal that a woman can use while standing.

    Shaving -- a Western trend?

    Xiao, who became a feminist in college after reading female authors like Simone de Beauvoir, says the aesthetics of silky smooth armpits didn't become popular in China until around 20 years ago, as American influences swept into the country. Before that, nobody thought showing armpit hair was an issue.
    As a small child, Xiao recalled her mother's indifference over armpit hair.
    "She said, 'I don't have much of it. Plus it will eventually shed years later. Why would I bother removing it?'"
    These days, shaving has become the norm for China women -- but it's not right, says Xiao.
    "The media coverage on female celebrities' underarms is disgusting, as if women shouldn't have hair or it's something to be ashamed of, while male celebrities openly show off their armpit hair."
    As one participant says beneath her photo submission: "I love my armpit hair. It's part of my body. I hope girls can show off their armpit hair without fear."

    Struggle against sexism

    To Xiao, concern over the armpit hair issue isn't trivial -- it's a matter of principle.
    "Some people question why I make a fuss about the hair. They say there are more important issues that need to be solved like domestic violence and sexual assault. I think they are equally important. They're all about fighting for gender equality."
    Xiao has tackled other issues concerning women.
    China releases women's rights activists from detention
    wrn.mckenzie.feminists.released.china_00000502

      JUST WATCHED

      China releases women's rights activists from detention

    MUST WATCH

    China releases women's rights activists from detention 01:42
    Last year, she walked more than 1,200 miles across China, sending letters to officials in each city she visited to raise awareness of sex abuse in Chinese schools.
    Before that, she has staged public art performances to protest everything from violence against women to unfair ratios of male-to-female public restrooms.
    But it hasn't been easy.
    In March, five of her friends, fellow activists, were detained after planning a protest in Beijing to counter sexual harassment on public transportation.
    They were only released a month later after news had spread around the world, leading even Hillary Clinton to condemn the arrests.

    An unequal society

    Although China's current regime was founded on values of gender equality -- Mao Zedong banned old practices such as the binding of women's feet, and famously declared "In China, women hold up half the sky," -- women in today's China face violence and discrimination.
    China: Living with bound feet
    China: Living with bound feet

      JUST WATCHED

      China: Living with bound feet

    MUST WATCH

    China: Living with bound feet 03:40
    According to a 2013 U.N. report, over half of men surveyed in China said they had committed an act of violence against a woman, and over one-fifth confessed to raping a woman.
    At the same time, women face extreme pressure to marry early, or else risk becoming a "leftover woman." Women who remain single, or fall outside beauty standards, are mocked as "manly women" -- sometimes on national television.
    And women remain underrepresented in leadership fields: No woman has ever reached China's Standing Committee, the country's highest-ranking political body.
    No matter: Xiao says she is determined to see the fight through.
    "Gender discrimination exists wherever there are people," she says. "Something needs to be done. We want our voices heard."