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Why are Asians Obsessed with White Skin?

Writer: Banyu Bening

Editor: Pat Sevikul, Veronica Yung

Graphic Designer: Janice Cheng

Asians spend an estimated $18 billion a year to appear pale, according to The World.

Growing up with dark skin, I’ve always been conditioned to think that the only way I’d ever appear beautiful is if my skin were paler. It seemed almost impossible to be able to feel accepted in a society where a lighter appearance was encouraged and at times, even expected. Snide, backhanded compliments regarding my skin tone were nothing of a new range to me. I was told to stay out of the tanning rays of the sun to keep it from ruining my complexion. Fashion campaigns and cosmetic advertisements glamorized a flawless ‘white’ complexion whereas darker appearances were painted as something people wished to get rid of.

The roots of Asian’s obsession with white skin are not only a result of the influence of multi-billion dollar skin-whitening product companies; it is a result of colorism. This dates back centuries ago to the prevalence of white supremacy in the era of European colonization. People of lighter skin were deemed superior and more powerful than those who were darker. This was because skin color was an implication of social and economic status, which was something not uncommon even before the first dynasty of Imperial China.

Anne Rose Kitagawa, assistant curator of Japanese art at Harvard’s Sackler Museum said that "The feminine ideal during the Han period for women of the court was almost unearthly white, white skin. Moon-like roundish faces, long black hair. You can see how a culture that maintained that as an early ideal might believe that light skin equals beauty.”

แม่ครัวคนใหม่ (Mae Krua Kon Mhai), or My Mischievous Fiancee is a recent Thai rom-com drama that uses Black face. The story follows LomDao who is set up to marry Param but refuses because she has never met him. LomDao disguises herself as Fai Dam, Param’s new family cook to figure out who he is, but they eventually fall in love after he realizes she’s his fiance. Seems okay right?

But here’s the catch: LomDao disguises herself by blackfacing and darkening her skin beyond its natural tone to appear to be of low social and economic status. Black or brown facing is not uncommon in other forms of TV entertainment either. For example, in Bollywood, actors temporarily have their skin darkened so as to play the role of characters with disadvantaged backgrounds; namely Ayushmann Khurrana’s movie Bala. Bala is categorized as a comedy and features a young man (played by Bhumi Pednekar with artificially darkened skin) who struggles to measure up to social beauty standards.

An advert for Mae Krua Kon Mhai

Skin tone plays into the traditional implications of economic status as dark skin was associated with long hours of labor in the fields under the sun, indicating rural poverty, whereas light skin was the reflection of a wealthier, high-class life.

These deeply rooted cultural norms still shine clearly to this day, primarily in the beauty, cosmetics, and entertainment industries, and it has taken a great toll on the homogenization of Asian beauty standards.

“You have dark skin. You’re not a real Asian, “ believe it or not, is something I’ve been told before that continues to puzzle me to this day. What defines a real Asian? Am I not Asian enough for you? Does my skin tone determine my race? Asia consists of a diverse collection of cultures, ethnicities, and languages, however, why is it that people tend to think that not all regions are equally Asian?

In a society where light skin is so highly praised, South East and South Asians are seen as inferior to East Asians because of their tanned skin.

East Asian standards of beauty, encapsulating porcelain white skin and ebony hair, have greatly influenced the range of Asian representation we see. Mainstream media tends to cast East Asian actors/actresses above South Asian ones. For example, Raya and the Last Dragon which, despite being a movie based on Southeast Asian culture, had a cast that consisted of majorly East Asian voice actors: Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, and Lucille Soong, plus Alan Tudyk. K-pop idols are also praised for having glass-like skin, and some of them even condemn tanned skin. It is not uncommon for them to utilize photo editing apps such as Snow or PicBeauty in order to lighten their appearances in the pictures they post. Oftentimes, this is done without any malicious intent and more as a result of the pressures of the Korean entertainment industry and the backlash that would ensue if they didn’t act in accordance with the expectations of an idol. Yuri from Girls Generation has said that she fears that her fans won’t find her “pretty enough” as an idol if she doesn’t use light makeup. Some idols have even been forced to undergo procedures such as plastic surgery or skin bleaching to alter their appearances so they are able to adhere to the set beauty standards, in which fair skin is associated with an idol’s pure image. Darker-skinned idols tend to be considered more “exotic and sexy” and are more prone to backlash solely as a result of their skin tone.

Makeup Camera App Preview

Asian skin whitening methods range from intensely shading yourself and covering up on the hottest summer days to plastic surgery to illegal bleaches and creams. According to a WHO survey, it was found that in nations including China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea, around 40% of women regularly utilize skin lightening products. The demand for whiteners is estimated to reach $31.2 billion by 2024 according to Global Industry Analysts.

“Whitening advertisements are very common in Thailand, like the rest of Asia. Often, these advertisements use Eurasian models, which naturally have fairer skin. This creates an unrealistic expectation for the native Thais, who are naturally more tanned,“ said former Thai model Madi Ross in an interview with CosmeticsDesign-Asia.

But despite all this, there is still hope to redefine Southeast Asia’s whitewashed beauty standards; in 2014, Nonthawan “Maeya” Thongleng was the first tan-skinned woman to be awarded the Miss Thailand World Crown.

Nonthawan “Maeya” Thongleng at the Miss Thailand World Crown paegent

Dark-skinned women are generally underrepresented and marginalized in favor of a lighter beauty standard and Maya's win was considered a great step in demolishing and reconstructing today’s beauty norms. The Dark Is Beautiful awareness and advocacy campaign to fight colorism that originated in India says, “Creating awareness about skin color bias is the first step to fighting it,”. Although overturning social norms that have been so deeply instilled in society is no easy task, as we break down our previously set standards and develop a more inclusive attitude, there is always room for change.




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