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Fit for Debate

While comedy drama YOLO set box office records with its inspiring story of one woman’s transformative journey of self-discovery through boxing, the dramatic weight loss of actor-director Jia Ling for the role has stirred heavy-hitting discussions over female beauty standards

By Yi Ziyi Updated May.1

The crew of YOLO participate in a meet-and-greet at a cinema in Xiangyang, Hubei Province, February 15, 2024 (Photo by VCG)

Jia Ling, Beijing Capital International Airport, December 14, 2020 (Photo by VCG)

A still from YOLO

Jia Ling attends a promotional event for YOLO at a cinema in Shanghai, February 14, 2024 (Photo by VCG)

Following her directorial debut Hi, Mom in early February 2021, actor-director Jia Ling pledged during an interview that if her film’s box office broke 3 billion yuan (US$416m), she would become “as thin as a lightning bolt.”  

Almost everyone took Jia’s remark as a joke. The actor, who had made a name for herself in sketch comedy, weighed roughly 90 kilograms.  

Hi, Mom eventually grossed 5.4 billion yuan (US$750m) to become China’s third-highest-grossing movie of all time.  

After a three year hiatus from the public spotlight, Jia surprised all with a stunning reveal. The 41-year-old had shed over 50 kilograms for her new film, YOLO.  

An adaptation of the 2014 Japanese film 100 Yen Love, YOLO follows the journey of Du Leying (Jia Ling), a 30-something woman struggling with unemployment and obesity who finds new fight in life after meeting a boxing coach (Lei Jiaying) and transforms herself, body and soul.  

Released on February 10, the film has raked in over 3.4 billion yuan (US$472m) as of March 3, topping the Chinese New Year holiday season box office.  

The film won widespread acclaim for its vivid portrayal of one woman’s journey to take back control of her life and its greater message about women’s independence and self-improvement. Nevertheless, the film and its marketing drew criticism for its hyper-focus on Jia’s weight loss, which some said reinforces stereotypes of female beauty and encourages fat shaming. 

‘To Win Once’ 
YOLO begins with Du Leying on the ropes. Facing discrimination in the job market because of her weight, she isolated herself at home for 10 years, which strained her relationship with her divorced younger sister, who she shares a room with. Worse still, her boyfriend cheats on her with her best friend.  

Du eventually finds a job at a barbecue restaurant where she meets Hao Kun, the boxing coach who would spark her metamorphosis.  

“To win once” is the motto of the boxing club that Du joins. It’s also the tagline for the film, which follows a determined Du on her long and arduous program of conditioning and boxing. The film realistically depicts how she changes her body, shedding nearly half her weight to become a well-built boxer over the course of a year.  

YOLO was shot over five separate periods between September 2022 and November 2023 to document Jia’s weight loss in real time.  

To prepare for the role, Jia gained an extra 20 kilograms. Then over the course of 11 months, she went from 105 to 55 kilograms. This halving in weight is encapsulated in the end credits, which feature behind-the-scenes clips from her strenuous workouts throughout 2023.  

Despite the dramatic montage, Jia distanced herself from its message. “YOLO is not a film about losing weight. It’s not even about boxing. It’s a film that tells how a kind person finds herself and learns to love herself,” Jia posted to Sina Weibo on January 11.  

The film gained a rating of 7.8/10 on Douban, China’s leading media review website, where it struck a chord with its encouraging narrative of rebuilding self-esteem.  

Chinese sexologist and feminist Li Yinghe said she was “deeply touched” by the film. “From YOLO, we can see the protagonist Du Leying gradually come out of her long-term state of self-negation, self-depreciation and self-abuse and eventually learns to care for herself and tries to love and be kind to herself, a process that releases her repressed vitality and allows her to bloom,” Li wrote on Sina Weibo on February 11.  

“The film realistically documents Jia Ling’s weight loss – it’s a record of an individual’s strong will to reshape her body. Her sweat sparks the burning fire of life. The film inspires people to have trust in life, embrace and love themselves, and boldly face any adversity,” she added. 
 
In the article published by The Paper, film critic Xu Jinjing points out how the film highlights a predicament many women face: the protagonist’s initial failures were not due to her appearance, but her passive approach to her relationships.  

“Instead of placing women in a subordinate or dominated position, this cinematic depiction of agency and initiative keenly aligns with the mindsets and values of the new generation of Chinese women who greatly value their identity and self-awakening,” Xu wrote.  

Throwing Punches 
Nevertheless, promotion for the film, which emphasized Jia’s weight loss, stirred debate on social media about body image – and Jia Ling was at the center of it. 

In the year before the film’s release, Jia had conspicuously been out of the public spotlight. On January 11, a month before YOLO premiered, she posted to Weibo that she had successfully “dropped 50 kilograms.” She did not include a photo, which built mystique around her transformation.  

A short video on Douyin (TikTok) showing Jia’s new physique to mark YOLO’s release on February 10 went viral, tallying up 8.94 million likes by the end of the month.  

On February 14, the release of music video for “Not Too Late” from the film’s soundtrack further drove the point home, featuring a pre-weight-loss Jia singing in muted makeup and many more workout clips before she appears on stage in an elegant yellow evening dress and high heels. 
 
Jia Ling’s weight loss trended on Chinese social media for over a month, with relevant hashtags becoming the most-searched topics on Sina Weibo, Douyin and Xiaohongshu (Little Red Book). By February 25, on Sina Weibo alone, 447 hashtags related to Jia Ling’s weight loss had appeared on the platform’s top-trending list.  

However, many netizens criticized Jia for using her weight loss as a promotional tactic that ultimately reinforces stereotypical beauty standards for women and prejudices against the obese. ��

“When people were amazed by how beautiful and thin Jia Ling had become, deep down I felt a little bad for her – doesn’t all this praise for Jia’s slender figure cater to beauty stereotypes?” Yan Ning, a 45-year-old life sciences professor and biologist at Tsinghua University, posted to Weibo on February 18. “She was really beautiful before she began losing weight. Why do people use monotonous beauty standards to homogenize interesting people?” Yan wrote.  

Mu Zhi, a 34-year-old employee at a Beijing bank, expressed her discomfort about the underlying message in YOLO. “It’s as if ‘to become your better self’ means ‘to become your thinner self.’ It seems like being overweight is becoming equivocated with undesirable attributes such as laziness, aimlessness and a lack of self-discipline. It may deepen people’s prejudice against obese individuals and strengthen the longstanding beauty standards imposed on women,” she told NewsChina.  

“I follow a woman on Douyin who weighs 90 kilograms and is 178 centimeters tall. She goes to the gym every day and feels very healthy. But her image does not align with the traditional Chinese standards of feminine beauty. She had low self-esteem in the past, but nowadays more and more women like her are becoming very confident. They use their appearance to defy social prejudices. They might feel a bit down when they see how Jia Ling, who they once identified with, conforms to conventional beauty standards,” Mu added.  

“The film does not focus on the message ‘the thinner, the prettier.’ The reason why the protagonist strives to lose weight is to become a boxer, not to become beautiful or pleasing to men. Weight loss is just a way to demonstrate her perseverance and determination to change her life,” Jian Rong, a 32-year-old English teacher in Shenzhen, told our reporter.  

“But promotion for the film overly focuses on Jia Ling’s weight loss. This has to some extent diverted public discussions from the film to more general debates on losing weight, beauty standards and [male perceptions of women]. Weight loss is not at the heart of the film – the film mainly talks about restored self-esteem and perseverance,” she said.  

Girl Power 
Jia Ling is China’s highest-grossing female director, with her two films Hi, Mom and YOLO pulling in a total of 8.8 billion yuan (US$1.2b) at the box office.  

Hi, Mom is a semi-autobiographical film that follows the fantastic journey of Jia Xiaoling (Jia Ling), a young woman who is transported back to 1981 where she befriends her mother Li Huanying (Zhang Xiaofei) to better understand her as a person. The story is inspired by Jia’s own memories of her mother Li Huanying, who passed away when Jia was 19.  

Film critic He Lingzheng likened Jia’s cinematic style to reality television. He points out that in promoting her two films, Jia’s team centered their marketing strategy around their autobiographical elements – her relationship with her late mother in Hi, Mom and her weight loss journey in YOLO. In blurring the lines between reality and fiction, these films give the audience the sensation of watching a “variety show” starring Jia Ling, He said.  

While many actors undergo drastic physical changes to prepare for roles, few films have marketed weight loss so heavily. “It focuses the audience too much on Jia Ling instead of the film,” He told our reporter.  

Controversy aside, Jia has emerged as China’s most influential female director, amplifying women’s voices and perspectives in an industry traditionally dominated by male filmmakers.  

She leads a wave of female Chinese directors making a splash in the cinematic landscape for their focus on women’s issues. For example, Yin Ruoxin’s Sister (2021) explores the emotional journey of a young girl tasked with raising her younger brother following the death of their parents, forcing her to sacrifice her own dreams and career aspirations.  

Similarly, Yang Lina’s Song of Spring (2022) sheds light on the struggles of aging women through the story of a mother and her middle-aged daughter diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, who rely solely on each other for support. Qin Haiyan’s The Woman in the Storm (2023) tackles the issue of domestic violence, depicting the harrowing journey of a successful career woman who, after enduring prolonged abuse, is driven to commit a drastic act.  

Established in 2015 by the China Film Director’s Guild (CFDG), the Green Onion Project provides support and funding to young female filmmakers. Over the past nine years, the project has helped nurture notable works such as The Crossing (2018) by Bai Xue, which offers a poignant portrayal of a teenage girl’s inner struggles, Shen Yu’s The Old Town Girls (2020), a crime drama exploring a complex mother-daughter dynamic, and Geng Zihan’s A Song Sung Blue (2023), a touching portrayal of friendship and love between two adolescent girls within the LGBTQ+ community.  

The project was started by Li Shaohong, 68, president of CFDG and pioneering female director known for TV series Palace of Desire (2000) and films such as Baober in Love (2004).  

“Female directors utilize filmmaking as a medium to convey their unique subjectivity and perspectives, and they know exactly what they want to express,” Li remarked at the 4th Hainan International Film Festival on December 22, 2022.  

“They are very active and engaging, as they deeply cherish these hard-won opportunities for self-expression. We can see a burgeoning cultural movement both at home and abroad where an increasing number of women are excelling in articulating themselves through diverse forms of expression. Their voices and narratives are increasingly valued,” Li said. 

The crew of YOLO pose for a photo with fans at a cinema in Xiangyang, Hubei Province, February 15, 2024 (Photo by VCG)

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