Note: I realise that the word ‘Oriental’ used as a noun may be deemed offensive and politically incorrect in some parts of the world. I, for one, have never found it derogatory at all and have always thought it a very succinct way of referring to someone from the Far East or someone of such background. So, since I do not wish to risk being bashed to pulp by my dear readers, I will only be using ‘Oriental’ as an adjective.
Perhaps you can already tell that yours truly is of Oriental background. I grew up in Asia surrounded by women who drummed into my head that a woman of Oriental origins was beautiful if she had fair skin, big round eyes and a high narrow nose. Even today, this idea of Oriental beauty is still prevalent in many parts of Asia. Different theories have been proposed to explain the psychology behind this. Some say that these beauty ideals revolve around Caucasian characteristics but there are those who say that it goes way back to when skin tone denoted one’s social status. This originates from the days of old when the pampered ladies of aristocracy in the Far East were fair-skinned due to being indoors most of the time. In contrast, their lesser fortunate lower-class counterparts had to labour outside in the fields under the sun, thus resulting in a tanner complexion.
Personally, I think this second line of thought is the better explanation of the two for this ‘fixation’ handed down from generation to generation but it still doesn’t really explain for the wish for big round eyes and a high narrow nose, does it?! Now, that’s a whole different discussion altogether!
Today, I’d like to talk about skin shades, just an observation of the funny and the not so funny side of things.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother, my mother and my aunt were always reminding me not to play long in the sun. “You won’t look beautiful if you become dark, child!” I am quite fair but I tan very easily. One year in school, I had to practise for sports in the hot afternoon sun for several weeks and I must have tanned more than ten shades as a result. My grandmother was aghast!
So, I remained quite tanned throughout my school-going years but in my adulthood, I gradually became fairer, eventually returning to my natural skin shade. You see, I’m more of an indoor type of girl than an outdoorsy girl, a pen-and-mouse-pusher is how I like to jokingly call it.
I am speaking in general of course (because there are always exceptions) but women in Asia, especially in the Far East, aren’t terribly fond of the sun. No, no tanning please. I know of women there who would only ever walk out in the sun if they had an umbrella over their heads. In extreme cases, some women even don gloves and socks to protect their hands and feet from the sun (that’s in addition to the long sleeves and long trousers). Check out the tourist attractions in your city. If you see a group of tourists from the Far East, you’re bound to spot at least one lady in the group walking under the shade of an umbrella and, maybe, if you’re lucky, also wearing a pair of gloves. I once saw a lady doing just that outside Buckingham Palace on a beautiful sunny summer day. Oh, she was attracting a lot of stares, all right. Some Westerners were even looking up in the sky wondering if it was raining!
In the Far East, when someone says to a female that she is fair, that’s meant to be a compliment. Is it any wonder then that skin-whitening creams, lotions and masks sell like hot cakes in that part of the world?! In a beauty store in Asia, you are far less likely to come across self-tanning lotions than whitening creams. The opposite is true in the West, as you might already know.
Cosmetic brands from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan wouldn’t do their brandname any justice if they didn’t have at least one whitening product range. Call it anything, but you must have at least the word ‘white’ or ‘whitening’ or ‘brightening’ in the name of the product. So, take your pick: ‘White Cleansing Oil’, ‘Medicated Whitening Mask’, ‘Instant White Cleansing Gel’, ‘Whitening Serum’, ‘Clear White Radiance Renewal Mask’, ‘Brightening Moisturizing Emulsion’.....you get the idea (it seems there is a difference between whitening products and brightening products too!).
Demand is so great in Asia that even the western brands have jumped in to cash in on the lucrative pie. Neutrogena has the Fine Fairness range, Garnier has its Light range, Olay calls it White Radiance, Lancôme has the Blanc Expert range, Estée Lauder the Cyber White EX range and Dior has Diorsnow Sublissime. I think I would be hard-pressed to find the whitening range of some of these brands here in Europe. They are after all mainly produced to cater to the needs of women in Asia.
For fun, I checked out the webstore of Sasa, an established Hong Kong-based cosmetic retailing group with many retail stores throughout Asia. I ran a search for “tanning” and I got a list of 5 self-tanner products. On the sidebar under the skincare section was a ‘whitening’ category with 259 products!
The contrast is also reflected on Youtube. Except for one, all the videos on self-tanning lotions feature Caucasians while the videos on whitening products were mostly made by those of Oriental origins.
Over in South Asia, there is a fairness cream called Fair & Lovely and it has been in the market since the late 70’s. I remember watching the advertisement in the 90’s and thinking, “What an interesting advertisement!” Interesting in a discomforting way, I mean. In the ad, you see a girl taking an interest in a boy in college but the boy never notices her because she is ‘dark’ and therefore ‘not pretty’. She’s depressed and she confides in her girlfriend who, surprise surprise, is fair-skinned. Her friend then reveals her secret to looking beautiful and (yes, you’ve guessed it) whips out her tube of Fair & Lovely. The ‘dark’ girl starts using the cream and you see a shade graduation of her face from dark to light. The final scene shows her back in college, a fairer radiating beauty and yes, yes, the boy whom she fancied suddenly takes notice of her and even asks her out on a date! Happy ending! Right?
It is beyond comprehension how such advertisements ever get approved by the authorities. What values are they trying to inculcate in impressionable young people? Check out the Fair & Lovely advertisements on Youtube. You could watch, for example, the one from Nepal. There are several different versions but they all revolve around the same theme: Being fairer-skinned gets you further in life.
You must be wondering if I have ever used whitening products before. The answer is no. Despite all the “fair is beautiful” indoctrination by the women elders during my formative years, I’d never ever felt any inclination to try them out. If you know my history, you’d know that I was too busy battling my own skin demons to be thinking about emulating Snow White. While I do question the principles behind the aforementioned advertisement, I pass no judgement on anyone for using whitening products or for using self-tanners. To each his own, I always say. You may think I have a very simplistic point of view, but trust me, having gone through what I’ve gone through, I’d say having clear healthy skin is way, way higher up on my agenda than worrying about my skin shade. And oh, never forget sun protection!
A penny for your thoughts? It doesn’t matter if you’re in the whitening camp, the tanning camp or, like me, in neither camp. Pray tell.