Brown and Yellow Women Dying to be Pale
Do you associate summer with pool parties, picnics, beach trips, and the sunkissed skin that comes with it? As an Asian American woman, I have the kind of complexion that tans easily— my skin darkens by a few shades after a quick lunchtime walk. Unfortunately, as an Asian woman, that’s not the kind of complexion my culture considers beautiful. In fact, it's spawned a lucrative -- and potentially dangerous -- industry of skin lightening products.
During a recent beach trip, I found myself huddled on a blanket with several other Asian American women, comparing SPFs and stories of how dark we got during our own childhoods, and how much our mothers lamented it: “Brown as a monkey!”
If you ask anyone, they'll probably say this desire to avoid the sun is to avoid skin cancer or wrinkles. But inside, I know the real reason: to avoid being dark.
As Laina Dawes post about colorism in the Black community reminded me, the bias toward lighter skin exists in many races. Sepia Mutiny urges South Asian women to put away the skin lightening creams such as the traditional Fair and Lovely, or even the new Nivea lightening products that are being touted by MTV India (Really? The folks that brought us Snooki and Company are promoting skin lightening creams?).
While (in the United States, at least), the preference for fair skin is more subtle, in Asia, it’s equivalent for say, the American obsession with blonde hair – or tan skin. Jenna writes on Lao Ren Cha, that as a white woman living in Taiwan, she is used to getting comments like:
In Chinese, there’s even a phrase that describes this kind of favoritism for pale skin tones.
One White Hides Three Uglies
That’s right. One white hides three uglies. In Mandarin, it’s: yī bái zhē sān chǒu. Bad teeth? Overweight? Weird nose? No problem! A milky complexion hides a multitude of beauty sins.
Which is great for people with naturally fair skin. But what about the many women whose efforts to get pale extend way beyond wearing sunscreen or staying in the shade. There’s this huge industry of cosmetics and skin care in Asia aimed at artificially lightening skin (not unlike the fake tan business in America). At best, their promises are specious. At worst, fatal. As the Guardian reports, the death of a 23-year old Cambodian woman last year was blamed on a skin whitening cream.
A YouTube search of the terms “Asian Skin Lightening” yields 236 results, most of them how-to videos. I did find this insightful vlog by PBunnieP:
Even in the United States, the FDA is examining the toxicity of hydroquinone, a legal skin lightening agent which has been linked to cancer in lab rats and side-effect called ochronosis, which ironically causes disfiguring skin darkening.
White, not Caucasian
While people might assume that this Asian obsession with fair skin is yet another manifestation of racial self-hatred, colonial legacy, or simply—the desire to appear more Caucasian, it’s not. As Catherine of Shu Flies writes, the fetish for pale skin goes back way before Asians immigrated to the U.S. or Europeans established colonial outposts in the Pacific.
"They compare themselves to Asian people who have more money. It’s not so much about racism as it is about classism
Until recently, Taiwan was an agricultural economy. Even if you were a city dweller with an indoor job, you spent a lot of time basking in the sun as you fetched water from a pump, tended to your vegetable garden, fed your chickens, went to the market, washed your laundry or did the million other things it took to run a household. Industrialization has changed the economic landscape and culture of Taiwan over the last four decades, but very pale skin is still seen as desirable.".
But we don’t live in that kind of society anymore. If anything, the rest of the world is moving toward the Western model, where the wealthy are the ones with free time to play tennis or go on Hawaiian vacations.
The bigger question is: why is it so hard to accept our natural skin tones? Why do women subject themselves to dangerous cosmetics, not to mention to avoid life’s simple pleasures (a day at the beach, a walk in the park)?
Why can’t beauty comes in all colors?