Chasing Snow White's Beauty

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’ get the idea (it seems there is a difference between whitening products and brightening products too!).

Image source: Google Images

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.

Image source: Google Images

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.


Rosamond said...

I agree with you. Having healthy skin that helps us radiate confidence is alot more important. I believe that in some countries women would get such terrible skin reactions to trying on the whitening creams that left scars all over.

P.S. Thanx so much for your sweet comment about my photos. ^_~

Take care,

Anonymous said...

My background in education is art/art history. We were taught, as students studying Asian culture/arts, that people were Asian and objects, oriental. I thought it interesting to mention because of your beginning paragraph.

Interesting post, in a good way! I tan easily too but stay clear of the sun for health reasons. Although, I don't use any whitening products, I've noticed that the best "whitening" for my skin is a high spf. Since I've been using a 55, my skin tone is a couple of shades lighter than it, it helps keeps hyperpigmentation at bay and that faux mustache that surfaces if I forget the spf;P I will sometimes apply a fake tan but it's not often and I easily tired of the constant application. Over the years, I've found it's just easier to accept my skin tone and just go with it but protect it too.
Hope you're having a great week!

Yi said...

darling you just made a good speech!!! My mum said the some thing to me when I was little (she still says the same now), “don’t go to beach without any protection.” She meant that I have to wear clothes that cover all my body, oh my god! I can’t believe I did that!!! I glad that happened when I was little girl who didn’t know anything and didn’t care how did the beach people looking at me. hahaha !!!


Witoxicity said...

You're welcome!
Yes, I've read of cases where ladies' faces become severely scarred from using cheap, poor quality whitening creams. So, instead of reaching for their dreams (of a better life/career), they descend into this irreversible nightmare. I guess the moral of the story is that if you really wish to whiten your skin, then use high quality products from trusted brands.

Thanks for the little tip on the use of the 'O' word. ;) I did a little research beforehand and found out that, in the US, it's derogatory if used on people, as you correctly said. Here's what's confusing: I know that in the UK, 'Asians' is used to refer to those of South Asian origins. So, sigh, to avoid confusion and to please everyone, I used 'people from the Far East' instead. :)
Oh, you've hit the nail on the head! Be happy with your skin tone but never underestimate the importance of sun protection!

Hah hah! That is indeed funny! Your story takes me back to my childhood days too. While other people go to the beach and work on their tans, there we were all covered up and 'protected'! :D

Me said...

Im actually quite glad you did an entry about this. Like you, I've also pondered at this issue. It's weird, my family praises me for my white fair skin but at the same time, when I am with my friends (especially since this is the U.S., we're talking about)...I get made fun of. They call me "Casper the ghost", "cracker", etc etc. I actually have suffered for beauty to become tanner. Bascially, I think I have been to both ends of the spectrum to realize that even though it should not matter...ppl sure do place so much emphasis on skin color. :/

I love your blog! Just subscribed to it :)

Me said...

Oh, whoops. What I meant by suffering to become tanner...

yep. You guessed it. I enrolled in a tanning membership club in high school. I blistered and couldn't move for a week but all in the name of vanity and beauty. :(

Jennnn said...

My mom was always telling me not to play outside too, and I tan easily. I think my natural skin color if I don't go outside for a while is pretty tan for an asian (but my parents are vietnamese-chinese so they weren't that crazy about me being snow white, they used to call me "black chicken" in chinese when i got dark, haha)

Actually when I went to Beijing last summer, I realized this whole "no tanning" thing too. Not that I like tanning anyway, but even I started carrying an umbrella because I didn't want to get dark. But that's because I know I don't look that good when I'm too dark.. I think I'm kind of inbetween on the whole whitening vs. tanning (although I'm constantly trying not to get tanned.. so I guess I just want to be in the middle.)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post~! For myself, I was never into tanning or whitening. Only recently had I discovered whitening products after joining the blog community. Though I must say I never liked getting darker.. only reason being is that it differed from my natural skin colour. After realizing that there were products out their to reverse the sun's effects, I jumped the bandwagon! I have yet to find the perfect whitening product.
I concur with your statement about healthy skin. Here's to healthy clear skin! XD

Witoxicity said...

It's so nice of you to drop by.
Wow, you could enrol for a tanning membership in school?! The after-effects of your tanning experience sounds excruciating painful. I'm sure glad you're fine now! :)

Thank you for sharing your story! Walking under the shade of an umbrella on a sunny day is a normal thing in East Asia. I was at times guilty of it myself, but here in Europe, I wouldn't be caught dead doing that! No way, it's just so un-cool to do that here! :D

I look forward to reading about your quest for the perfect whitening product! I have zero knowledge of the workings of such products and although I won't be going down this path, it would be interesting for me to follow your progress. :)

Gail said...

what an interesting post, I often wondered about this but never felt equipped to address it. XX

Witoxicity said...

That's good to hear, Gail! This topic had been playing on my mind for a long time. Having lived both in the East and the West, I thought the stark contrast in the 'sun culture' too obvious to ignore. Until I started this blog, I had no avenue through which I could describe these observations. Thanks goodness for blogging! :)

Anonymous said...

My sister and I are half Japanese, and it's funny how she went one way on this topic and I tend to go the other. I wear sunblock if I'm going to be hanging out by the pool but most of the time I'm indoors. My sister on the other hand, tans constantly and actually applies tanning accelerator in place of sunblock.

Our Japanese half comes from my mother, and I think it's fitting that my sister is closer to my father and I'm closer to my mother. Perhaps that had something to do with the way we view tanning. :)

Witoxicity said...

This is so interesting! Yes, I quite agree with you. It does seem that the respective bonds that you have with your parents may have had a strong influence in the polarised views that both of you have on the fair/tanned issue. Thanks for sharing this! :)

Anonymous said...

I just came across this post and I understand what you mean! When I was younger and wanted to play out, my mum was like 'Don't play out for too long, being dark isn't good'. LOL. I'm quite tanned compared to the rest of my family and everyone assumes my sister is prettier etc because she's fairer than me and I always get criticised by many Orientals (No offence intended) and people who know me in that community....

A couple of months ago I was really self conscious of this sort of topic and considered whitening creams etc... But now? I'm content with myself =). I don't need to change or want to change my skin tone for anyone! Hehe =).

Btw, your posts are great and you have fabulous writing skills.


Witoxicity said...

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I'm very pleased you enjoy my posts.

You are beautiful the way you are (and I'm not only just saying it) and you have such lovely skin (thanks to good genes and Kanebo, among others!). So, there is absolutely no need to feel unhappy with how you look! I'm glad that you're now accepting of that. And if you ever want to change that, do it for yourself and not for others. :)

LiisK said...

I've always been the snow-white. And I live in Northern-Europe.
Here we have a different problem: "everybody" wants to be tanned and "beautifully brown". The way white folks try to change race is simply ridiculous (btw, how many white folks you know who tan beautifully? most of them go red like lobsters and the resulting tan has a strong red tint too - not pretty!).
This craze seems to be passing, albeit slowly because orange-skinned Oompa-loompas are still so common here, they look terribly unclassy and yet have the nerve to tell ME, that my natural skintone looks unnatural and corpsy and that I should get some Sun! Apparently my blue-white legs are hurting their eyes or something.

Also - there's almost no makeup for pale people in the shops - variety is so small it's scary. And where is the natural habitat of the whities? Northern Bloody Europe.
Weird :S.

Since I'm European, I find the "race" and "political correctness" issues in the US rather weird. I would not mind being called "Occidental" but I do bloody well mind being called Caucasian -
my peeps have very little to do with the region, I still remember the shock when I learned of this classification in highschool.

Witoxicity said...

Thanks for your input, LiisK. It's the same fair vs tanned issue, in reverse! I do wish everyone would just feel comfortable in their own skin, in this case, literally! But unfortunately, it's a slow process of change. Occidental......that's a much more inclusive and appropriate word indeed! :)