I first became aware of China’s obsession with skin colour during my first few days in Beijing. I am extremely pale and aside from an obligatory ‘Le Tan’ at my senior formal, always have been. Two women approached me in an electronics store. In thick Beijing accents, they began comparing their skin to mine. A mix of compliments and harsh words flew back and forth. I became aware of the dichotomy here – I was ‘white’ and they were ‘black’. What was also clear was the not-so-subtle coding used: ‘white’ was equated with purity and cleanliness (a sign that you didn’t work in the fields). Black stood for dirty, poor and most importantly, inferior. This was by no means a sole-standing experience. In addition to my pale skin, my blue eyes, light hair and big nose ensured that I always stood out in Beijing. Friends and I would have competitions to see who could get asked for more photos in busy tourist spots. Trying to ‘not see race’ was not an option.
In China today, skin lightening creams line store shelves, while women outside hold up parasols to protect their skin from the sun. Slang for the ‘perfect woman’ (baifumei) lists pale as the first criterion, ahead of wealthy and beautiful. Eyelid tape is an equally popular beauty tool available in every supermarket and on popular online stores like Taobao. The tape works to counteract the epicanthic fold prevalent in many East Asian people’s eyes in order to achieve the widely considered Caucasian double eyelid. On the more extreme end of the scale, double eyelid surgery, along with nose and chin reshaping, is becoming increasingly commonplace. In fact, South Korea has now overtaken Brazil to boast the highest number of plastic surgeries per capita – more than 4,000 clinics a year will nip and tuck around 650,000 people.
How did we get here?
Colonisation swept across the Asian region from the 15th Century, bringing with it all sorts of Eurocentric ideals. Soap companies were able to capitalise on new markets by drawing parallels between darker skin and poor hygiene, being forthright in the racial hierarchy they were creating. Similarly, racial science, the practice of using pseudo-scientific practices and ideas to reinforce racist ideals, saw so-called ‘scientists’ ranking the purification of the races. This worked to further the notion that ideal proportions of beautiful bodies and faces were those of Caucasian and white people.
Fast forward to today and outside of a Colonial context, even the most far-reaching corners of the globe can’t escape globalisation’s clutches. Sociologist George Ritzer’s ‘McDonaldization’ concept outlines the economic and cultural omnipotence of the United States on a global scale, thus creating a homogenous global culture centred on Western standards.
Beautiful white bodies and faces grace TV screens, product advertisements and clothing store posters across Asia. Skin lightening treatments in particular are widely popular across Asia as a whole, with dangerous skin bleaching practices being recommended. Popular skin lightening cream Fair & Lovely is sold and used widely across India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Pakistan in particular, occupying 80 per cent of India’s fairness cream market. Ironically, Fair & Lovely are owned by Unilever – the same company that owns Dove, famous for their campaigns for real beauty and positive body image. Maybe it’s time for them to practice what they preach.
Where does this leave us?
It’s all too easy, for me as a white woman at least, to take this situation as a kind of tragedy narrative and to pity and victimise men and women with darker complexions. But to adopt this sort of White Saviour complex is to oversimplify the situation, not to mention ignore complex structures of agency and self-expression. No, South Korean women dying their black hair a lighter shade of brown isn’t an attempt to adhere to Western beauty ideals, no more than Chinese women wearing lighter contact lenses is. That said, there is some colourism going on and there are some very cool people getting out and talking about it.
Recently, students at the University of Texas have created ‘Unfair and Lovely’ to call out exactly this. Taking their name from the aforementioned India-based skin lightening product, black student Pax Jones photographed Sri Lankan sisters Mirusha and Yanusha Yogarajah to highlight their shared experience of this colourism and basically kick some arse. The campaign has grown to invite everyone to take to social media with the hashtag #unfairandlovely. People are coming together to combat these unfair beauty standards and start a conversation about what it means to be beautiful in today’s world.
And whether you’re dark skinned, pale white, tan, blue eyed, brown eyed, a boy, a girl, or somewhere in between, this is a conversation that we can all afford to be a part of.