BEIJING — Striving to put a pretty face on the Summer Olympic Games, China on Wednesday displayed its candidates to serve as medal ceremony hostesses — none of them too heavy and all carefully coifed and able to balance books on their poised heads.
The size and appearance of the medal hostesses has taken on outsized interest since a Beijing Olympics official announced late last year that "they can't be too fat."
"I want to know if you have criteria for the bodies of the candidates," a Chinese reporter at a news conference asked Liu Wenjun, the vice president of the Changping Vocational School in Beijing's far northern suburbs, site of residential hostess training. Liu demurred, noting only that candidates were between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-6 inches tall.
China's acknowledgement that only pretty university students would be picked to serve in the public eye during the Olympics has drawn flak from abroad.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, fired off a letter on Dec. 5 telling Beijing Olympic Committee officials that China is signatory to a number of international conventions banning discriminatory treatment toward women.
"In planning the Olympics, officials at the highest levels of government should publicly condemn discrimination rather than reinforce harmful stereotypes and unfair hiring practices," wrote Brad Adams, the group's executive director for its Asia division.
At a demonstration of the training classes for hostess candidates before a throng of about 100 journalists, 40 candidates went through a series of exercises. All had their hair tied back in buns, wore identical red suits and conservative black high-heeled shoes.
They marched across a gymnasium carrying trays, pretended to usher guests to seats and stood at attention, smiling broadly if a little tautly, with books balanced on their heads.
"You have to be in good shape. You have to have good English, and some understanding of Chinese history," said Guo Tongxu, an 18-year-old hostess candidate from China's northeastern Jilin province.
Another candidate acknowledged having anxiety about staying trim before a final cut is made.
"We have to know how to control our weight. If we eat meat today, we don't eat it tomorrow," said Zhang Lusi.
Pressure on the volunteer hostesses to make the grade is so great that local media have referred to the training center as a "concentration camp" or "boot camp."
A spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games, Jeff Ruffolo, said it's only natural for China to seek attractive medal hostesses.
"Have you seen any 4-foot-2 presenters of medals?" Ruffolo asked. "It's not within the realm of reality. Every host country wants to put its best show on for the planet, whether it's in Sydney or in Greece" (the last two Summer Olympics host cities).
Liu said trainers are trying many tactics so that candidates appear to always smile naturally. One exercise requires them to chomp down on chopsticks between their teeth.
"Using chopsticks is to make our students look more natural when they smile," Liu said. "It's similar to Indian girls when they hold a flower in their mouth. It makes the shape of their lips more perfect."
A drab communist society barely two decades ago, China today is hurtling toward fashion modernity. Annual spending on beauty products and services is rising 15 percent.
Last month, a 23-year-old Beijing secretary beat 105 other contestants to capture the 57th Miss World tiara, vindicating China's 2003 decision to end a ban on beauty pageants, which former leader Mao Zedong once dismissed as "bourgeois nonsense."