Is lipstick 'too sexy' for China?


Earlier this year, Chinese youth market consultancy China Youthology conducted a micro study to investigate why Chinese women aren't wearing lipstick as much as their Western counterparts.

Associate research director Jay Mark Caplan says the findings from interviews with an admittedly small sample size of six Beijing women – all first-jobbers in their early 20s – revealed some interesting insights.

"All the young women had this strong desire to wear lipstick," says Caplan. "The ability to do something a bit more bold and colourful with their style was really appealing. The problem was they were terrified of being judged negatively by the people around them."

He tells the story of one interviewee, a 26-year-old digital agency planner, who trialled her new lipstick at home, posting the pictures online.


Following encouragement from friends, she felt emboldened to wear it to the mall. It was only at the gym that things soured.

"She matched her pink lipstick with a pink and black sports outfit, and told us that with the lipstick on she ran better and harder on the treadmill than ever before," says Caplan. "But when she went to her trainer, he said, 'You have to take off your lipstick. It's too sexy. It's not appropriate."'

In China that line between what is and isn't socially acceptable is drawn with lipstick.

Last month in Shanxi Province, 24-year-old banker Li Ziqi also turned to social media to post two self-portraits wearing lipsticks she was given in a cosmetics company promotion.

The shades are hardly bright, but her caption reads: "My friend said it's too feminine and asked if I dare wear this out. Of course I don't!"

It was the first time Li had ever worn lipstick, and while she won't brave wearing it out, experimentations in the pseudo-public arena of social media indicate a willingness to push beyond the comfort zone.

As Caplan says: "They want to feel like they're letting loose, and the problem is they don't have many social occasions to do so."

While China Youthology's sample size was small, its findings correlate with the more expansive research conducted by China-based brand consultancy Labbrand, whose previous clients include cosmetics giants such as Chanel, Lancôme, Dior and Estée Lauder.

According to vice-general manager Denise Sabet, Labbrand's studies reveal Chinese women are particularly uncomfortable wearing lipstick or bright shades at the workplace because "career women do not want to highlight their femininity at work", and instead "downplay it to level the playing field with their male colleagues".

With the age of Labbrand's interviewees spanning early 20s to late 30s, results from several focus groups uncovered a "holiday or weekend" style that was more likely to involve lipstick, and more daring colours.

Sabet sees in these women a separation between work and play time, and says such labels as Dior have succeeded in tapping into their inner desires. "They do want to be more in control, more dominant, more expressive," she says. "And they're trying to find these occasions or avenues where they can sort of let that out because they keep it under wraps all day."

If lipstick is a symbol of female sexuality (consider teenage girls graduating from their strawberry-flavoured lip balms to lipsticks), it is all too easy to join the dots between lipstick uptake and sexual expression, and quickly arrive at female empowerment: quite literally, "lipstick feminism".

No doubt there are plenty of advertisers eager to show us the way. But it would probably be more useful to consider these changes as part of a long and complex sexual history in China, one that, according to Behind the Red Door author Richard Burger, is like a swinging pendulum, "from unprecedented sexual liberalism under the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to repressive orthodoxy under the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1912), with lots of back and forths in between".

And the most puritanical era of them all also happens to be the most recent.

Burger writes: "If by the late nineteenth century the sexual landscape had grown dim, after Mao took power in 1949 it soon went absolutely black. For many years, the slightest display of intimacy outside the home was taboo.

"Marriage was a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman. Premarital sex and homosexuality were strictly forbidden as the CCP wrapped its people in a cocoon of chastity. Men and women wore drab, gender-neutral clothing, and sexual desire was looked on as a selfish and bourgeois indulgence."

Lipsticks are the miniskirts of the cosmetics world, and thus pose a challenge for a society only now moving the pendulum back the other way. But where there has been a noticeable explosion in sales has been skincare, a more subtle beauty product.

According to numbers provided by market research company Euromonitor, China's skincare sales grew from $US4.5 billion in 2006 to $US11.2 billion in 2011, the first year to outstrip the US market.

Where skincare almost tripled in size over five years, lipstick sales grew 73 per cent in the same period, reaching 831.2 million in 2011.

So it was no surprise that when Estée Lauder launched a brand for the Chinese market late last year, they focused solely on skincare. Called Osiao, the brand's website advertises its use of "eastern ingredients", such as white peony root and jujube.

Sabet notes Lancôme too has had success with their lipstick sales by highlighting natural ingredients and moisturising properties, and that Chinese consumers often choose high-end brands because of health reasons.

"It was interesting for us to see this health and safety concern - which is resonating throughout all product categories in China - extend to cosmetics," says Sabet.

If there is any group in which we are likely to see a faster uptake of lipstick it is the oft-maligned jiulinghou, the Chinese born after 1990. Older generations characterise them as spoilt, materialistic and headstrong, but their individualism also marks them as willing to break away from social convention.

Take Ren Baobei, the nickname of an 18-year-old from Henan province who this month posted online a photo of herself wearing a bright red Chanel lipstick, a gift from her mother.

Ren tells me Chanel is her favourite brand because "it's sexy and energetic", although the vocal student only wears it performing on stage. She also says girls of her generation are on the whole more creative with their lipstick colour, with a greater love of famous brands.

Which means for lipstick brands in China the gap between lipstick and skincare sales is nothing but opportunity for growth, particularly when Western markets have already matured.

Artistry is the marketed cosmetics line of direct-selling company Amway and is sold extensively in China. According to Elaine Sheng, of the brand's colour cosmetics department, the average age of Chinese lipstick consumers is younger than in the West, as fewer of the older Chinese consumers grew up using colour cosmetics.

As China's lipstick consumers grow in number and their taste becomes more discerning, brands such as Artistry have responded by releasing ever more lipstick shades.

Other signs of change in the country include the include the massive popularity of juicy-lipped actress Yao Chen, who has single-handedly overcome China's long-standing prejudice against big mouths (beauty conventions dictate pale skin, big eyes, and a small, dainty mouth).

In short, there's every reason to assume the future of lipstick in China is bright. Think, fuchsia, hot-pink bright.