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China’s new 飞盘名媛 Frisbee Beauties

In recent years, exercise has become an increasingly important element in the lives of China’s youth and young adults. Rarely, however, has a sport caused as much controversy as frisbee, it seems.

A friend took me to an organized frisbee event, it was my first time to play this sport. One that is easy to pick up, it’s good fun, you can play one-on-one or in teams. Frisbee is a non-touch game, and one of the biggest differences to other sports is that a foul or disagreement is usually solved by both sides negotiating an acceptable solution in an amicable and constructive manner—there’s no aggression, no confrontation, only peaceful communication and interaction.

My friend told me that what attracted her to frisbee in the first place is the cordial social interaction instead of tiring competition, there’s no separation of winners and losers with its accompanying sense of domination and humiliation, there’s only fun and joy. It syncs with the kind of lifestyle she pursues, one that allows her to continuously make new friends.

Then, a few months ago, she suddenly stopped playing. The reason, as she told me, was that new phenomenon called ‘飞盘名媛 fēi pán míng yuàn‘, or ’Frisbee Beauties’.

Almost out of the blue, social media was swamped with images of attractive, scantily clad young women who liked to '摆凹 bǎi āo', that is strike suggestive poses that flaunt their physical lines and curves while playing frisbee. It looked like they were more interested in a pursuing modeling or live-streamer careers than in enjoying the fun and health benefits of the sport itself.

New frisbee clubs mushroomed, with stringent entry requirements on physical appearance, educational levels, professional background and even bank savings. A premium segment was being contrived, it seemed, as some of those clubs demanded entry fees of 500 Yuan or more—and that didn’t even include required (premium) attire.

My friend told me that she dropped out because she didn’t want to be labeled a ‘Frisbee Beauty’. Exposing so much skin and showing off one’s seductive curves via pretentious, exaggerated poses during play simply wasn’t her style, and it had nothing to do with the enjoyment of the sport. The online debate on this new phenomenon became quite controversial.

Notwithstanding the aesthetics, health and social benefits of the game, I wondered why those ‘Beauties’ caused so much contentious debate? A show-off culture is an integral part of youth life in China (even though not pursued by everyone), and everyone knows that today’s age is the ‘照骗时代’, the age of deepfake and photoshoppable identities.

So, why the controversy?

Let’s look at the evolving complexities of Chinese young adults’ social lives, the demands on ‘sociability’, on social versus individualistic behavior, elements that increasingly influence branding and marketing in the marketplace. Frisbee in China carries equity elements of exercise (tag: health, vigor, youthfulness) and social life (tag: male female interaction). Cost of entry is (still) low, the sport is non-competitive and one is thus less subject to personal scrutiny (you won’t be subjected to ’社死 shè sǐ’, that is die of embarrassment if you don’t play well and lose a game).

Frisbee offers plenty of opportunity to pose for WeChat-Moments-worthy images and TikTok-able clips, to display and gain admiration for one’s youthful attractiveness. In other words, a perfect stage for young people to express themselves, to catch and claim their 15 seconds of fame—and, of course, for marketers to swiftly move in and exploit this fast-growing trend by choreographing a flurry of commercial events. Just check out the glamping craze in China, there are plenty of posers there who seamlessly integrate their camping moments with their contrived and carefully managed social media images.

The term for ‘Beauty’ in ‘Frisbee Beauty, ‘名媛 míng yuàn’, carries both positive and negative connotations, and it suggests the image of a ‘socialite’, someone endowed with talent and beauty (or at least with sufficient cash to pay for intrusive beauty treatment), and for some it is a highly aspirational image of a '可远观而不可亵玩焉 kě yuǎn guān ér bù kě xiè wán yān', that is an irresistible but (nominally) unattainable object of desire for powerful CEOs or tall, rich and handsome princelings.

Plenty of people (mostly among the male half of society) are now pointing angry fingers at those new and female-curve-focused frisbee clubs for being nothing more than useful tools for young women’s romantic and social advancement. They even call this new trend a ‘名媛骗局míng yuàn piàn jú', or 'Beauty Fraud’...somewhat akin to Honey Trap). It seems that whenever attractive young women enter and claim certain public stages, and under the auspices of “I’m just seeking some fun and relaxation for myself”, doubt and controversy spreads like a wildfire. The only thing that those indictors see is women who deploy their physical attraction to reach certain strategic goals, women who want to ‘date up’ (and eventually marry up). “Everything within reason, please!” they shout with righteous indignation. “Don’t overdo it with your beautified, manipulated images, they might blow up in and destroy your face when exposed.”

More clear-headed voices are trying to tone down the fuss, telling those pointing their patriarchal fingers to go and mind their own business: young women can wear and expose whatever they want, and they can pose for as many pictures as they wish. No one has the right to claim any moral high ground here, and certainly not those men who, while chanting moralistic slogans, are in fact the ones who objectify women, who see them through stereotypical and sexist prisms.

Perhaps someone should enlighten them: a lot of young women in China today love and enjoy their own beauty, they take pride in their bodies, their appearances, their lives, which is an important and healthy part of what we call emotional self-care; when they take pictures of themselves, they do so for themselves and no one else. And by the way, as long as men are allowed to rip off their shirts during a soccer match and flaunt their well-toned, winning masculinity, no one can prevent Chinese women from wearing make-up and sports bras when playing frisbee.

In many ways, angry reactions to ‘Frisbee Beauties’ in China are a reflection of ubiquitous patriarchal mindsets in society (and among certain male segments in particular),

what we hear are the voices of people eager to suppress the display of femininity and female beauty for its own sake and pleasure.

It seems that, on a visceral level, certain women feel jealous of those 'Frisbee Beauties' appearances and lifestyles and go on the attack, while some men feel ‘left out’ when they realize it's not about them…funny how they always seem to think they are the intended audience of all female behavior – guess what, guys, in most cases you’re not!

Chinese literary and slang terms used in this article:

摆凹 bǎi āo: to strike a pose (that flaunts attractive or aspirational lines and curves);

照骗 zhào piàn: a play on the word ‘照片 zhào piàn’ (photograph, picture), but with a modified ‘piàn’ character, creating the meaning of ‘picture fraud’, i.e., a manipulated picture intended to deceive (or hide the 'ugly truth'...);

名媛 míng yuàn, a well-known woman, a socialite (carries both positive and negative connotations, depending on context);

社死 shè sǐ, literally ‘die a social death / killed by society’, meaning to die of embarrassment;

可远观而不可亵玩焉 kě yuǎn guān ér bù kě xiè wán yān, a literary phrase meaning ‘beautiful to behold but unattainable’.

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