On the latest episode of Dear HK, which aired Tuesday, Felix, Charlotte and I discuss beauty ideals in Hong Kong, specifically with regard to women. One thing we focus on is the “whitening” phenomenon. As a recent transplant to HK, I’m often taken aback by frequent banners around the city that advertise “cleanses” or skin treatments promising a fairer complexion. Having grown up in the U.S., I’ve always understood a golden tan to be the ultimate sign of glamour, but that’s hardly the case here.
True: skin-whitening ads (like the ones featured here) are pretty common in Hong Kong, but they’re nothing new. After some research, I found out that the enthusiasm for whitening has a storied past in East Asia and beyond. According to a 2011 article in the China Daily,
skin whitening has a long history in Asia, stemming back to ancient China. And the saying ‘one white covers up one hundred ugliness’ was passed through the generations.
The desire for pale skin also holds major traction in India, where those nearer to the bottom of the caste system—the “untouchables”—tend to have darker skin. There’s a huge market for skin-lightening creams there, too—even ones for your vagina!
I know a bit about this topic already because my mom is Korean, and she tells me that the obsession with pale skin is just as prevalent in Korea as it is here or in mainland China. In fact, the last time we visited Seoul together—when I was fourteen—people stared at my mom constantly. She’s an avid outdoorswoman who hikes, cycles, and runs outside most the time, so she’s pretty tan for a Korean person.
Sadly, it’s true that many Koreans automatically tend to associate darker skin with people of a lower social class. For example, Koreans equate tan people with farmers or day laborers. Wealthier people, on the other hand, are thought to have porcelain skin untouched by the sun.
But class isn’t the only factor that ties into the whitening mania. In the journal Asian Ethnicity, Solomon Leong (of the City University of Hong Kong) explores the concept of whitening in his 2006 paper “Who’s the Fairest of Them All?” In a focus group made up of Hong Kongers and Brits, Leong poses questions about “whether…people from ‘other races’ would need to use whitening cosmetics.”
In response, members of the focus group characterize Filipina and Indonesian women as “coarser” with “less fine facial contours” than the “Orientals (referring to the Chinese and Japanese).” The participants then go on to say that Filipina and Indonesian women look like they “can do a lot of work.”
The findings in this paper are fascinating and disturbing, with a whole lot to consider. What I find particularly interesting is that skin tone alone can influence people’s perceptions on so many different levels—from class and race to age, gender roles, sexuality, and even personality traits (like the idea that Southeast Asian women are “hardworking”)—and that the paleness complex has such a rich and deeply embedded historical context in Asia.
Another important thing to note from Leong’s findings—and something I’ve been pondering for a while—is that this fixation on whitening doesn’t necessarily mean that Asian women want to “look Western.” When questioned about whiteness in relation to Caucasians, the Hong Kong members of Leong’s focus group said the following:
It’s diﬃcult to compare them (Caucasians) with Oriental people.
They are pale, but their skin often shows many blood vessels and they often have freckles…
Oriental skin is ﬁner.
Here’s the thing: I feel like too many Western journalists miss the point whenever they report on the plastic surgery phenomenon or the whitening craze in East Asian hubs like Hong Kong or Tokyo. Just because paler skin is a prized attribute does not mean Asian women want to look Western. Now, I’m not saying race doesn’t play a part—because clearly it does, especially considering the comments about Southeast Asian women—but in my opinion, the assumption that Asian women simply want to look Western reflects a Western-centric and highly simplified understanding of an extremely nuanced issue.
After all, as I mentioned earlier, the obsession with pale skin goes back for years and years, before white people had even made contact with Asian countries. As a Jezebel commenter succinctly notes in an article on the popularity Korean plastic surgery, “Asians have had their own screwed up impossible standards since before white people were even on the world stage.”