Stability in a Chaotic World — How Beauty Products provide a Sense of Control to Young Chinese Women

Beauty is serious business for the so-called “post-95” woman in China: beauty products help her regain a sense of control and stability in a world where there seems to be none.

Here are a few interesting insights from our recent independent study into the motivations and psychological experiences of beauty products among young women in China:

SEEKING CONTROL IN AN UNSTABLE WORLD

Teenagers everywhere struggle with the difficult journey into adulthood. A sense of control and predictability is usually maintained via family support, educational planning and investment to provide a sense of moving into the (safe) future.

For the post-95 woman in China, however, a prevailing sense of instability goes beyond those natural emotional and existential upheavals accompanying the transition into adulthood.

Factors that contribute to her feeling a lack of stability and control include:

“I don’t even know that what I’m studying now is gonna be relevant five years from now. What am I supposed to make plans for, and how?”

Economic issues, a difficult job market and an unpredictable professional future — an no one knows what type of skills and knowledge will actually be required in the near future, creating frustration in terms of educational plans and goals.

“My folks don’t really understand me…my world is so much different from theirs, there’s not much I can learn from them…”

The emotional and cultural generation gap between the post-95s and their (post 60/70s) parents has never been larger in China. Their folks’ idea of stability included a stable marriage, a linear career in a famous company and an apartment or two. Those aspirations now sound like a silly joke to their daughters, what with stratospheric real estate prices and anything but stability in the job market or even marriage (see below).

Personal values, pop-cultural differences, upheavals in society and economy — various elements feed into this ‘gap feel’. Young women don’t feel understood by their folks — even though they recognize their parents’ implacable desire to protect and help their kids.

Filling this empathy void is friendship: the value and importance of genuine, trusting friendship among peers has risen drastically and become a substitute for stability in one’s life.

“There’s nothing, absolutely nothing one can take for granted. What’s here today may be gone tomorrow.”

One underestimated and so far little-researched factor is rising divorce rates among their parent generation: a comparatively ‘new’ phenomenon in modern Chinese society, divorces are often accompanied by vitriolic battles over the (only) child as well as family assets, and which left indelible imprints on their kids. The Chinese post-60/70s generation was rather ill-prepared for the emotional and existential damage that divorce may cause, as well as its impact on the kids. Traditionally, the Chinese family has always been the epitome of stability, a pivotal and extremely durable social unit. Seeing it fall to pieces in their own lives or among friends and neighbors amps up the sense of uncertainty, and that one cannot take anything for granted in this modern world.

It has created an entirely new ‘weltanschauung’ in the mind of the young Chinese woman, and in response, she seeks a sense of stability in the way she ‘manages’ herself and her life.

One important sphere in this endeavor is how she deals with her looks and image in the eyes of those who matter to her.

BEAUTY AND PERSONAL CARE — PROVIDING A SENSE OF ‘AGENCY’

With skin care and make-up she manages her looks, catering to an important emotional experience of stability in uncertain times: she is in control of ‘looking good’, of looking in control of herself, and thus feeling in control of who she is and how she experiences her world.

“My looks help me stay integrated.”

Looking good creates social acceptance. This is extremely important for her ability to nurture close friendship ties, as well as her access to aspirational social groups or ‘gangs’.

True friendship counts even more than a romantic relationship. The latter is often risky and may even lead to her experiencing a loss of control over her life in various ways. The Chinese post-95 woman is keen on spending her time with trustworthy friends rather than trying to find Mr. Right. For her, it is critical to hone her skills in actively managing the way peers and friends see, think and feel about her.

In this respect, she has a clear idea of the use and purpose of make-up products, for instance:

“I use and experiment carefully [with make-up] because it helps me get accepted by peers and friends … be part of my group…”

“With my make-up and beauty style I can inspire others who then trust my judgment…I can even give them some guidance. Makes me feel I’m doing something important, I’m on the right track…”

“Looking good and healthy makes me feel safe…”

“It makes me feel like a woman, people actually treat me like a woman…”

And despite properties of concealment and beautification ascribed to beauty products and which may perhaps ‘distort’ the real person beneath the crafted veneer, evaluating and judging a person by the way she manages her looks in this way is actually part of her social-navigational de rigueur:

“I usually know what kind of person she is just by the way she manages her own looks…by the products and make-up style she uses…”

BRAVE NEW WORLD

She uses WeChat, Meipai, Weibo and a flurry of other apps popular in China to share pictures, moments and experiences that actively construct and control her image. The same platforms help her evaluate and choose personal care and beauty brands, as she orients herself via friends’ recommendations and their personal experiences, as well as those of bloggers and vloggers. She considers blunt promotion of brands by celebs and traditional advertising as fake and not trustworthy, no matter the fame and appeal of the celebrity herself.

Being widely connected via apps and sites creates a sense of belonging, of being connected, and an inherent sense of trustworthiness regarding exchanged information. Having access to personal connections’ opinions and experiences heightens her sense of control — and also her susceptibility to influence, as she is also ready to admit and accept.

BRAVE NEW BRAND WORLD

Most personal and beauty care products and brands stress functional benefits of concealment and beautification, ending their bland communication with vague and generic promises of a happy life. Others play with insecurity and the promise of confidence. Again and again.

No beauty or personal care brand has yet told a story that riffs on this important psychological role of beauty products in the life of the post-95 woman in China: how she herself gains and maintains hersense of personal control and stability, thus making her life more predictable.

The key lies in applying the right mental frames with a strong narrative thread when crafting her story: a story that reflects her experiences, her view of herself and how she is going to shape the world.

A savvy beauty brand would be telling genuine stories about her fears and aspirations, her goals and setbacks, how she deals with those, and by using herself as the protagonist. This cannot be achieved by advertising but only via story-based branded entertainment that integrates her emotions with the brand experience.

She wants to hear her own story instead of empty slogans — and in both content and execution.

The vehicles of persuasion are already there, in fact they have always been there — and brands need to learn to use them properly.