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Aging Influencers, Chinese Grandmas Are Social Media Hit

Old age is trending in China for reasons of culture, technology and demographics.

Aging Influencers, Chinese Grandmas Are Social Media Hit

China's fashion grandmothers

Carlo Pizzati

BEIJING — Imagine a 70-year-old Chinese version of Chiara Ferragni. Now multiply these "senior" Asian influencers by a dozen and you will have a snapshot of the new phenomenon that has hit social media in China. The aging divas are the stars of the feed dedicated to "Fashion Grandmothers" on the Chinese social network Douyin, the national version of TikTok.

They call themselves "fashion_grannies' or "Glamma Beijing," playing on the Chinese pronunciation of the English words grandma and glamor. And they are quite something to see, wrapped up in traditional damask cheongsam, buttoned all the way up their neck or hopping in casual clothes of the latest fashion brands.

Grey is the new blond, a wise man once said, and old age is turning into a modern trend, with Chinese characteristics.

What do glamor grandmothers do? Just like elderly Barbies, they are dressed, stylized and dolled up by squads of young designers, aestheticians and makeup artists before walking the catwalk in slow-motion videos, with sudden speed-ups to further show off the charisma of these trendy grandmas.

"When I was young, I never wore makeup," says Sang Xiuzhan, a 75-year-old who's lived for 50 years in Beijing. "My dream as a girl was to work in show business, but I had to become an engineer in the 1960s. We had to contribute to economic growth, not spending any time on the superfluous. Any work related to the arts was discouraged."

In her account, filled with Marxist social theory, Sang evokes a world in which life had to be sacrificed to the Five-Year Plan of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo far more than it is today. It was a time when the frills and trappings of fashion were a blasphemy from capitalism's industrial complex.

But now retired, Sang has found an outlet for her artistic tendencies as a fashion grandma, contributing in attracting three million followers on social media. "At first we bet on young influencers," says He Daling, Ceo of Wuxianda and founder of Fashion Grandmas. "Then we saw that seniors were bringing more traffic in a market full of opportunities for ad revenue and off-line events like reality shows."

There is no doubt that the market of old people is growing. In China, men retire at age 60, and by 2025, according to Civil Affairs Minister Li Jiheng, that will reach 300 million retirees, up from 254 million who are already the world's largest elderly block. And they're a gold mine, because between 2015 and 2019, the consumer market for retirees grew 15% a year to $637 billion.

Retirees become content.

This reality is full of surprises that paint the picture of a strange return to the past, made possible precisely thanks to the latest technology. "These videos of seniors disrupt stereotypes of old age. Retirees used to be seen as passive, unsophisticated and coarse," says Xiao Lijuan, the 32-year-old CEO of Letuizu, a digital platform that turned five grandfathers and five grandmothers into lifestyle icons on the Tencent channel and gained three million followers. "Now these opinionated senior citizens are demonstrating the possibility that people over 60 can be beautiful and graceful people, albeit in a different way than young people."

The message aimed at seniors seems to appeal even more to young people. True, thanks to an increase in China's over-50 internet users from 9.2% in 2015 to 22.8% today, they are targeting an audience of near-peers to sell them products for the "silver age," such as apps for ballroom dancing, jazz, folk and even hip hop. It's also true that the volume of products targeted to seniors increased 78% from 2017 to 2019, and brands doubled. But seniors are tighter with their spending, and products for them are less expensive than those for younger people. In addition, seniors are less responsive to the promotional message in comparison to young people. Retirees, in fact, are considered "immature e-commerce consumers," according to research by JD.com.

A couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary at a retirement center in China — Photo: SIPA Asia/ZUMA

The truth is that most of the followers of fashion grandmothers are young. For example, there is a Douyin channel with more than two million followers whose main character is a 67-year-old grandmother. According to the channel's owner, Zhao Haiguo, 84% of the followers are women between the ages of 25 and 40. "It's crazy to see them looking so beautiful at that age. Beauty is something that always exists in women," comments Lin Suying, 25, one of the Fashion Grannies followers. "I'm completely entranced by how beautiful older women can be."

Retirees thus become content. Indeed, it is the perception of Shangri-la, of happy aging, that becomes a catch-all among the youth, who remain the marketing's favorite target. In the end, it is understood that these images of silver models, performing their well-choreographed ballets, smiling bewitchingly, winking, sympathetically sexy, serve as an exorcism against the fear of death and the consumption of old age. And it appeals to young people, more than to the elderly themselves, who know full well that, behind the artificial veneer of glamour, there subsists the stark reality of the difficulties of the body wearing out.

"I'm getting older and I have dentures," confesses former engineer Sang. "So sometimes I eat my words a little bit, and a lot of the fashion grandmothers' events require speaking skills... and that depresses me a little bit."

Through social media, there is a reprogramming of the meaning of aging between old and young people.

The idea of pitching old age as content on social media isn't limited to surface images, however. Take Jiang Minci, who at 90 has become an influencer with mostly millennial fans. With the help of her nephew, she filmed the story of her life in episodes, amassing 300,000 followers in three months. With tripods and smartphones in her living room, she tells how she escaped an arranged marriage and became a railway engineer at the dawn of the new China, inspiring and motivating young people who are 70 years younger than her.

On one hand, there is an attempt to transform the meaning of the word "old," not because of a spontaneous act from a venerable generation, but thanks to the commercial spirit of 20-something up-and-comers with their social media production teams. On the other hand is a healing of older people's dangerous social exclusion that is a significant cause of depression and decay for Western retirees, treated with doses of psychotropic drugs.

Through social media, there is a reprogramming of the meaning of aging between old and young. The relationship of transmission of values of strength and self-fulfillment typical of the traditional context of the Chinese family and so dear to President Xi Jinping is being rearranged. The newfound elegance of fashion grandmothers on social media becomes a new way to strengthen the ancestral dialogue between young and old, to the benefit of both.

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When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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