Why are Asians obsessed with having white skin? It wasn’t until I ran out of lotion in Thailand and needed more that I stumbled upon the whitening craze. All of the lotions had whitening ingredients. This was just the tip of the iceberg. The more I looked around the more whitening products I noticed. It was hard to find deodorant, lotion or facial cleanser without a whitening ingredient.
Historically lighter or whiter skin has been linked to a higher social status in Asia. Royal families and upper business class people throughout history have had lighter skin tones or created through make up a lighter appearance. There is an old proverb in Japan: “white skin covers the seven flaws”. This refers to fair-skinned women being beautiful even if their features are not attractive. Farmers and laborers (being darker from the outdoor work) meant they weren’t part of the upper working class, therefore lower social status/class. Having white skin as a symbol of higher status in Asia has been going on for centuries.
Seeing all of this inspired me to grab my camera and investigate just what exactly are these women (and men) putting on their skin to achieve brighter whiter skin. The active ingredient in some skin lighteners is mercury, so skin bleaching can lead to mercury poisoning and kidney damage in some cases. Mercury used in skin lighteners is banned in the U.S. Most of the skin lighteners work by reducing the melatonin on the skin where it is applied. Hydroquinone is no longer available in some parts of the world because of the damaging affects of longterm use. Hydroquinone is available in the U.S. with a doctor’s prescription and used with caution if prescribed. In fact, excessive use of hydroquinone in combination with certain foods (fish, eggs, beans) can result in a fish odor through sweat and urine. Arsenic has been found in whitening products sold outside of the United States.
While visiting throughout Southeast Asia, I noticed that most of the local people had their arms and legs covered in the sweltering sun. These are the people working on the beaches and outdoors. I love the beautiful golden brown skin tone that some Thai’s have naturally.
A young woman on Otres Beach in Cambodia giving massages was covered from head to toe. I asked her why she covered all of her skin in this sticky sweaty heat, her reply: “I don’t want dark skin”. This was the first time I heard it out a someone’s mouth. I asked her why and she replied “You know, it’s like girls with curly hair want straight.” My guess was she didn’t want to tell me that dark was unattractive. Being dark skinned myself, I could see why she would feel uncomfortable talking to me about not wanting to be dark. I explained to her about tanning beds in America and how many fair skinned people would love to have the sun-kissed look. I tried to break the ice on the subject and said I loved being brown skinned because it’s different and many people sit in the sun for hours to get their skin to look like mine. She just smiled and shook her head no.
Advertisements play a huge part in this white obsession. Throughout Asia the billboards and magazine ads are dominated with Asians that have whiter skin and finer features. To be honest they hardly look Asian at all. Thanks to photoshop, some of the model’s eyes are blue.
The tone that is being set is truly unrealistic. Some of the commercials use extreme lighting which reflects off the actor’s skin tones completely blowing out any features of the face. Seeing this change in advertising leads me to believe there is more to having just white skin for a clear complexion, it’s about looking more European or western.
There was a Loreal advertisement with 6 Asian women photographed together, all of them were photoshopped with blue wide eyes and bright white skin. I had to really really study the picture to see any trace of Asian in them. This is very misleading to young women and girls and sets a horrible standard for them growing up. Here is an advertisement by Silky Girl similar to what I had seen.
While visiting a drugstore in Singapore I found a product for wider eyes. Eye tape is placed over the eyelid to make the eye appear round. Some women are going through extreme surgeries to have their eyes widened to appear round instead of the beautiful almond shape they were born with. This is just one of many products offered to appear more westernized (“white”).
As mentioned earlier, this is just a scratch on the surface of a much larger, broader dangerous misconception of whiter skin linked to success, beauty and acceptance among other humans. Whitening products have become a booming market for manufactures and stores worldwide. Unfortunately, medically speaking there are no products on the market that will produce the results showed on the advertisements.