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In Brief: Asia’s Obsession With Fair Skin

In Brief: Asia’s Obsession With Fair Skin

  • Culture
  • Life
A clip on Youtube where Malcolm X speaks about the ‘House Negro’ versus the ‘Field Negro’ says it best: certain societies and individuals continue to believe, whether implicitly or explicitly, that lighter skin tones deserve privileges that darker skin tones do not.

While Western beauty ideals exist today as a kind of hangover from the colonial pasts of many countries, having dark or fair skin isn’t always about race. In her song On & On, South Korean rapper Yuk Jidam talks about being teased and bullied (when she was young) for being darker.

In her case, the association attached to dark skin was class-related; that of village life and being out in the sun.

Likewise on the African continent, lighter complexions entail better treatment and career opportunities. This has resulted in the dangerous trend of skin-bleaching, all in the hope of procuring a better life. In Lagos, Nigeria, 72.4% of women use skin-lightening products. In Senegal, up to 67% of women use these products.

In India, where skin colour is believed to reflect caste and social standing, 258 tons of skin-lightening cream was used in 2012 alone.

This is alarming when one considers that a National Toxicology Program study under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labelled hydroquinone (the skin bleaching ingredient present in skin lightening products) a potential carcinogen.

In other words, anyone using such products has a higher risk of cancer.

In January this year, a Thai beauty company, Seoul Secret, released an ad that unleashed a hailstorm of media backlash.

“Just being White, you will win,” said Cris Horwang, a Thai model and singer. “Eternally white, I am confident,” she declared.

Matthew Kepnes, a travel writer, relates a story he overheard while teaching in Thailand: In the beginning god created man. At first, he cooked the people too much (dark skinned people). Then he cooked them too little (pasty westerners). Finally, he cooked them just right (light skinned Asians).

At least in Asia and Africa, skin colour has been intertwined with both history and religion to continually reinforce the idea that dark skin is connected with labouring in the fields and being poor. Upper classes, it seems, stay indoors.

As such, the pursuit of fairer skin is also the pursuit of improved social (and by default, economic) standing.

Earlier in June, Dazed magazine reported that Ghana will ban all cosmetic products that contain hydroquinone. From August 2016, “Acceptance for skin lightening products will be zero,” Ghana’s FDA spokesperson James Lartey was quoted as saying.

Likewise in Thailand, Seoul Secret was pressured into releasing a statement of apology in which it clarified that they had intended to emphasise self-improvement.

Admittedly, such measures and responses aren’t the best ways to go about addressing discrimination. In Korea, for instance, it is not uncommon for advertisements looking to hire English teachers at private institutions and cram schools in Seoul to include the stipulation, “White person only.”

When confronted about this, the same excuses are frequently heard; that having pale skin means that one is of a higher class, or that Korea has advanced so quickly while the mentality of its people has not kept up.

Few attempts have been successful in genuinely over-turning the mindset that only thin, white and blonde female American teachers are quality candidates.

While legislation and social justice activism don’t always address deep-seated prejudices, they are perhaps one of the few ways forward. The onus remains on those who recognise the problem, and those who enjoy the privilege of being white or non-POC (persons of colour), to challenge the status quo when they can.

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Julian Wong Managing editor