Growing up in the early 200s in Hong Kong, in between Scooby Doo and Pokémon, advertisements of the newest products from Shiseido, Lancôme, Estée Lauder and other high end beauty brands features (and always almost exclusively) light skinned East Asian models or a European model. They would caress their flawless skin, smile at the camera, and a cool voice would proclaim how this newest toner/face wash/face mask/serum could help keep your skin in a multitude of ways. What it never fails to include is that it could also keep your skin light, regardless of the fact that it’s not even remotely a skin whitening cream. It turns out having the ability to keep your skin light goes hand in hand with virtually any other function a beauty product provides. At that time, I would simply regard it as “boring adult stuff” and pay half a mind to these repetitive advertisements filled with pretty smiling ladies, unaware of the cultural message it is perpetuating.
Image credit: Azchael -An advertisement in Beijing
It wasn’t until my trip to Thailand when I was thirteen that I started noticing a trend when it comes to the topic of skin colour. Mom didn’t join us this time and so as most parents do, she compensated her absence in our trip by being overly obsessed with looking at the photos dad took. One particular photo stuck out for her and she brushed her fingers across the image- thirteen year old me grinning from ear to ear, staring at the camera with a Nintendo held in my hand. It wasn’t the fact that I was playing Nintendo that bothered her, after all, I was on holiday, it was something else.
“Look how dark you’ve gotten.” She said disapprovingly and shook her head.
My heart immediately sank from hearing her tone and I went into defence mode.
“It was the sun! I was out playing in the beach! I forgot sunscreen!” Excuses flowed and she merely sat there, seemingly amused by how agitated I had become.
“Well, this would be a good lesson for you to learn. Wear sunscreen.” She smiled and ruffled my hair.
I didn’t understand why I felt the need to defend myself, nor did I understand why she seemed kind of disappointed by something that is way beyond my control. But upon seeing her reaction, I felt the need to defend why my skin have gotten dark against my will. Due to genetics, I am quite pale. However, I tan quite easily and at that time, having tanned skin almost felt like betrayal, like my body should not have reacted to the sun at all, like there was something wrong with being so dark.
The same issue cropped up a few days later. We were headed to the badminton court at our local club, and Mom had a group of friends that usually accompanied us to these trips. It was usually quite fun and the oppressive summer heat made indoor sports a much more attractive option.
I was heading up the stairs with my sister when I heard a rather distressed voice. Concerned that something bad had happened and being an attentive and caring kid, I quickly turned around to see what the commotion was about. One of my mom’s close friend was lamenting about her arms. I stopped like any curious thirteen year old and eavesdropped on their conversation.
“Look how dark my skin has gotten!” Mom’s friend exclaimed.
“You should stay out of the sun.” Mom said almost sagely with the attitude of an old shaman giving out secret recipes.
“I did! I even slathered myself with sunscreen but still,” she gestured towards her arm, “it’s gotten so dark.” She sounded so upset, it was almost as if this was the worst thing to ever happen to her.
They continued their conversation about the best skin care and I basically zoned out and went to join my sister at the courts. It wasn’t until much later when I had the chance to see her up close that I noticed how “dark” her skin was: she was half a shade darker than a piece of white paper.
It didn’t stop there of course.
Going to dinner with the extended family was a constant bombardment of comments from relatives you see once a year. Mixed in with the usual “oh you’ve gotten so big” comments to “how’s school going for you” to “do you have a girlfriend? (wink wink)”, there would inevitably be a comment about skin colour. For good and for worse.
“You’ve gotten so much more white.” An auntie would exclaim to another auntie and she would blush and smile as if someone had told her she won the lottery.
“Wow, you’ve gotten darker, have you been going out to the sun?” An auntie would ask a cousin and they would immediately lament about how they should’ve used more sunscreen and wore a hat, while everyone else would nod empathetically about their plight.
Even babies are not exempt.
The highest compliment one can give a newborn is by describing exactly how white the baby’s skin is.
“White like snow!” Was a common expression and everyone would immediately nod and smile at each other, the mother would stand proudly with the baby swaddled in her arms with the smuggest smile on her face.
These words would slowly have an impact on me as the years go by. Avoiding the sun seemed almost like a second instinct, wearing sun screen was a must, staying indoors were preferred, running on a treadmill over the fields. Not once had I questioned this notion, until I turned nineteen.
At that point I had already been in Australia for four years. Without the constant bombardment of “light=beautiful” in media and with my family still in Hong Kong, I quickly forgot about the ridiculous beauty standards set on me and let myself get a tanned without feeling ugly.
Late one night, I was sitting with my friends, lazy and drowsy after a hearty dinner, conversing about the latest uni assignment and reminiscing on old high school memories. When those topics lost their lustre, we inevitably circled into what we liked to call a D&M sesh. For those unaware, D&M stands for deep and meaningful – and the topic of skin colour came up.
Out of all my friends, Dayu’s skin is the darkest. Despite coming from a Chinese background and being born in Shanghai, he had dark brown skin due to staying in the sun for long periods of time as a kid. I forgot how it started, but someone must have made a jab at him about being “almost black”. He had taken that joke in good sport but almost immediately lamented on how he should’ve stayed out of the sun when he was a child and how he wished he used sunscreen.
Immediately my mind went back to all the beauty ads I’d seen as a kid, and all the subtle and not so subtle comments from relatives about the importance of staying light skinned. However, past the unpleasant memories of being on the receiving end of snide comments, it had never occurred to me that I’ve never once questioned why. Why is lighter skin more beautiful? I was curious to say the least, so I asked a simple question:
“Why do you care so much about being light skinned?”
The reaction was almost comical if not quite sad. Firstly, they automatically assumed I had taken offence to the “black” comment and defended themselves vigorously.
“It’s not a racial thing.” They laughed uneasily and launched into an explanation of this inside joke of which I was unaware until they brought it up. After reassuring them that I did not think of them as racist and my question merely came from a place of curiosity, another friend shrugged.
“We’re Asians, it’s part of our culture.”
Since everyone in the room came from different Asian backgrounds- East Timorese, Malaysian, Thai, and two other Chinese friends, I felt extremely surprised that they all seemed to agree unanimously with that statement. After all, every country has a different culture, so it’s kind of rare something as prominent as beauty standards could be so readily agreed on.
“But surely there’s a reason for that.” I suggested that it was a result of colonialism. From Hong Kong, I am aware of the effect of colonialism can have on people but not two seconds into my own insight, I was immediately shut down.
“It’s not a racist thing, god, Matt, you’re so sensitive.” The same friend rolled his eyes and with the patronising attitude of an elementary teacher explaining why one plus one equals two. “Back in the old days, peasants and farmers worked outside in the sun, whether it be in the paddy fields or tending to animals so they have darker skin as a result, the rich and royalty on the other hand get to stay indoors. It’s merely a status thing that got passed on from generations to generations.” He concluded matter of factly. Everyone nodded.
I felt compelled to argue but they clearly lost their interest and focused on other topics, but something about that explanation rubbed me the wrong way. So I vowed I would do some personal research.
Typing into the google search bar “asian, light skin, beautiful” I was automatically bombarded with articles about lightening cream in India to think pieces about “Asia’s obsession with being white”. Go onto YouTube and search up any Asian beauty guru and you’ll inevitably see tutorial guides on “Light skinned tips for the summer”, “How to look like a K-Pop star” (hint: it involves lightening your skin), “How I retain my fair skin”.
These are beauty gurus from all different backgrounds, South Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Philippines – however they all seem to subscribe to the same notion of beauty only being found in fair skin individuals. Their video comments would be filled with same minded people- “It’s not racist some people just like being fair skinned!” “PC culture wild nowadays, what’s wrong with wanting to be more pale.” “Fuck off it’s not racist for wanting to look beautiful!”
An advertisement on Elizabeth Arden Hong Kong website
The driving reason behind such an obsession seemed to always circle back to the idea of “cultural” rather than “racial”. It turned out my friend’s extremely patronising explanation was correct, or rather, it is what most Asians think: I’ve been given history lessons on how the this and that dynasty praised light skin and being told that it’s simply a tradition that has been passed on for generations.
But binding your feet was also seen as beautiful until the Qing Dynasty in China.
The practice of Ohaguro: blackening one’s teeth was popular in the Edo period in Japan.
These are things that no one does anymore, these are traditions that are seen as outdated, and in some cases barbaric. So why is it that we so willingly accept this obsession with light skin as something inevitably tied to our culture? Haven’t we proven that culture changes along with new ideas and values, and within the globalising world. Furthermore, with Asia as a pioneer in so many aspects of the modern world as we know it, why is light skin being seen as beautiful still so prevalent?
A popular whitening cream brand- Fair & Lovely
Lightening cream, laser treatment, even eating pills are remedies that can provide light skin. And if you already have light skin then the main goal is to retain it. Despite the dangers and reports of skin whitening cream involving illegal ingredients such as mercury and steroids to reports of whitening cream causing severe side effects such as “intense irritation and uneven bleaching of the skin”, people are risking their health just so they can look pale. A report in 2012 shows that Asia-pacific has seen the whitening cream industry cross the $2 billion dollar mark and was reportedly expected to reach 10 billion in 2015. Another researcher shows that by 2024, this industry will reach U.S. $31.2 billion in it’s net worth.