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A Chinese media post praising female nurses for having their heads shaved has sparked outrage on Weibo and WeChat. Are these women heroes of the coronavirus crisis or victims of gendered visual propaganda?

A video showing tearful female medical workers having their head shaved before going to COVID-19 epicenter city Wuhan has sparked outrage on Chinese social media.

The video, originally posted by Gansu Daily (每日甘肃网) on February 15, shows how a group of female nurses is standing in line to have their hair shaved off in preparation of their mission to Hubei to assist during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

In the short segment that has since gone viral on Weibo and WeChat, some women can be seen crying while having all of their hair shaved off.

According to Gansu Daily and other Chinese media, the fifteen nurses, including one man, are part of a medical aid group that was sent out to Wuhan this weekend. Their hair was reportedly shaved off “in accordance with requirements” to make their work more efficient and reduce the risk of infection.

The original news post praises the women as “the epidemic’s heroes in harm’s way” (“疫情中最美的逆行者”) – a term also used to describe brave firefighters during the 2015 Tianjin explosions (for more background on this term in Chinese, also see Xinhua and Zhihu).

Although the story praises the female medical workers as heroes and was soon reposted and promoted by many other (state) media, it was not just met with positive reactions from Chinese netizens.

On the contrary: it triggered waves of criticism over the medical team’s supervisors requiring the women to shave off their hair, with many deeming the measures unnecessary, humiliating, and sexist.

“Why do they need to shave all of their hair, the men don’t even need to do that?!”, some Weibo commenters wonder.

Many Weibo users wonder how necessary it actually is for the women to go completely bold for medical work purposes, wondering why the male workers do not need to shave their heads and why the women could not just opt for a shorter hairstyle instead – suggesting the media circus surrounding the shaving of the heads is more about visual propaganda than actually being a necessity.

“I am a medical worker myself,” one Weibo user writes: “I consulted an infection control doctor [on this matter] and they said it is not necessary at all to have a bald head. Short hair is convenient enough, and hair has a protective function too to reduce [skin] irritation from the friction of wearing hats and masks. It furthermore also has a function of catching sweat, preventing it from dripping to your eyes. A shaven head does more harm than good.”

“Why do people need to bleed and cry in order for them to become heroes?”, others say: “This is just cruel.”

Adding to the online fury was a photo showing the group of medical workers after their heads were shaved, as the one male nurse in the group not only seemed to wear a better quality face mask, but also appeared to have much more hair left than the female nurses.

The original Gansu Daily post has since been deleted from social media.

On WeChat account Epoch Story (“epochstory2017″/Epoch故事小馆), author Chen Mashu (陈麻薯) posted a critique on February 17th titled “Please Stop Using Female Bodies as Propaganda Tools” (“请停止用女性的身体,作为宣传的工具“).

Recent online Chinese visual propaganda in times of the coronavirus crisis has seen a strong focus on Wuhan medical workers.

This kind of visual propaganda often highlights the idea of “sacrificing,” especially when it comes to women as pretty girls, loving mothers, or good wives.

In the WeChat article, author Chen argues that Chinese state media always uses women’s bodies as a tool for propaganda, and argues that it should not be necessary for women to endure extra hardship or suffering (in this case, sacrifice their hair) in order to make them admirable ‘model workers.’ The fact that they are fighting on the front line should be more than enough reason to praise them, Chen writes.

While these women’s tears were “used to try to impress the audience” and become an example of some “collectivist spirit,” Chen argues, this kind of propaganda backfired because the individual needs and wishes of these women were completely ignored during the process.

Although the original story and visuals may have meant to be empowering in times of coronacrisis, they are actually counterproductive to female empowerment at large.

This is not the first time the role of women in Chinese state media propaganda become a big topic of discussion online.

In 2016, a photo series titled “100.000 soldier-loving girls” (十万恋军女孩) posted by China’s Military Web during the Wuhan flood also caused controversy. In the online media campaign, Chinese state media paid a ‘tribute’ to rescue workers by sharing pictures of girls holding the message “I wish to wash your uniform for you”. It triggered online discussions on the submissive female image propagated by Chinese state media.

At time of writing, various posts about the shaved heads of the Gansu medical workers have been taken offline.

For more COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan) and Bobby Fung (@bobbyfungmr), with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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