Asia’s Obsession with White Skin

For centuries and up to the present day, Asia has had an obsession with white skin. In Asia, Eurocentric beauty standards are more ideal as fairer skin is linked to attractiveness. This is evident in cosmetics and has resulted in a booming multi-billion dollar skin-whitening market in Asia. These problematic beauty ideals arose during colonial times and are still propagated today through the media. However, more and more people are speaking out against such ideals and are embracing all skin tones.

Pale skin has been the dominant beauty norm for centuries in many Asian countries. A World Health Organization survey revealed that 40% of women in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea use skin whitening products regularly. Similarly, a 2002 survey by Asia Market Intelligence found that 75% of men in Malaysia think their partners would be more beautiful with fairer skin. Fair skin is perceived by many to be more beautiful and attractive, which is why the skin-whitening market continues to thrive. Its popularity is continuously growing; by 2027, the industry is estimated to be valued at $8.9 billion US. Skin-whitening products sold on popular platforms like Yesstyle make it easily accessible for everyone. Not only are these products discriminatory, but they are proven to have harmful effects and contain chemicals as well. Regardless, people still use them to achieve idealized standards of beauty, doing anything to make themselves appear to have whiter skin. The media also plays a role in popularizing these ideals with advertisements and billboards featuring light-skinned models promoting skin-whitening products. As such, people are exposed to problematic ideals from a young age, enabling the standards to become deeply ingrained in society.

The ideality of whiter skin in Asian culture is historically linked to socio-economic status and colonialism. Years ago, white skin was an implication of social status. People who worked as labourers spent more time in the sun and therefore had darker skin. Meanwhile, the elite noble people lived a privileged and comfortable life indoors as a result of their wealth. As such, the darker the skin colour you had, the lower you were on the social ladder and hierarchy. These standards led to people yearning for whiter skin as they would appear to have a higher social status. Additionally, most countries in Asia were colonized by white people from the US and Europe. The power and wealth that the colonizers had were visually displayed through their fair complexion. Even in Japan (which has never been colonized), noblewomen during the Edo period completely covered their faces with white makeup as light skin was associated with luxury. This history has repercussions in today’s beauty standards across Asia.

In more recent years, Eurocentric beauty standards have received backlash for their portrayal in advertising campaigns that explicitly imply people with fairer skin are more beautiful. For example, in Malaysia, cosmetics store Watson’s released a controversial video advertisement (above) that many people perceived as racist. In the advertisement, a man becomes taken aback by a woman’s darker skin and only marries the woman when she washes off her dark makeup and has fair skin. Other problematic campaigns have received similar backlash and prompted viral hashtags in the media. Lately, people have started to embrace the beauty of darker skin tones and the idea that all skin colours are beautiful.

The Eurocentric beauty ideals rooted in a history of rigid class structure and colonialism have influenced societal standards in Asia up until the present day. Even though the dominant beauty norm of pale skin is still prevalent in many Asian countries, they are starting to be challenged by new beauty standards, which can become more pervasive in the future. There is room for change in society; collectively we need to break down these discriminatory beauty standards to promote an inclusive and accepting society for all.


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