What Happens When The Beauty Standard Is White

The Asian Skin Standard 5 - @rosey-ballerina


Whenever I go to the south of France in summertime, I find myself surrounded by thousands of beach-goers who bask in some long-awaited sunlight far from the city gloom. Sitting on their towels, I see swimsuited women accentuate their bronzed skin with tanning products that would never be as popular in Asia; “美白 (mei bai),” which directly translates to “beautiful white,” is a key phrase I have often heard in Chinese skin-care commercials. There, pearly skin is held to be glamorous, a sign of cultural refinement.

This paradigm has been deeply rooted in Chinese history. Since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), one’s social class can been defined by the tone of their skin: the peasantry is known to work long hours in agricultural fields under the blazing sun, giving them a tan that distinguishes them from higher-class citizens.

Elevation of pale skin is widespread on the Asian continent for reasons that often link back to Western colonialism. In Japan, the arrival of Commodore Perry and his American ships in 1853 was succeeded by the Meiji Restoration in which Japanese men and women began imitating Western fashion and appearances. Similarly, Korea was introduced to Western beauty standards after opening its ports to foreign powers in 1876.

Nowadays, white skin is so desirable in China that many invest in skin whitening products, never forget to carry umbrellas on sunny days, and use Asian photo-editing apps that are automated to lighten their complexions. Representation of the wide range of pigmentations that exist is scarce for a country with a population of more than 1.3 billion and 56 ethnic groups. Most famous actors and singers in the nation have light skin tones, and that is no coincidence.

Clearly, some major aspects of Chinese culture send a strong and hostile message in terms of what skin tones are desirable, and even acceptable. While this is bad enough, these prejudiced standards have also seeped into China’s perceptions of other cultures and, in turn, encourage anti-blackness. A recent example of this is the eruption of the discriminatory reactions in China to the release of Black Panther — a movie that was celebrated on other continents for its almost all-black cast. One online reviewer called it “almost a torture for the eyes” for the “dark color of the movie.” Another reproached the movie for its “political correctness” and blamed the “group of black shadows fighting” for his urge to leave the movie theater early.

The “beautiful white” that is so desperately sought after by the Chinese quickly and dangerously translates to a resentment of other skin colors. And yet, this sentiment is often vastly overlooked — normalized even. An example of the normalization of this hatred could be observed when Chinese actors were put in blackface to appear African on a television skit, and the government brushed off accusations that this was problematic, even after facing widespread criticism.

My French-Congolese friend has been one to experience the blurred lines of cultural discrimination and curiosity in Shanghai; his hair is shamelessly touched on the subway, parents pull their children away from him, and he’s even been subjected to tense confrontations where he’s been told to “go back to his country.” As Asian territories are globalizing, it has become evident that skin preference isn’t an issue that limits itself to mere beauty standards; it is becoming a cultural hurdle. While this kind of clash may be initially uncomfortable for everyone involved, I do believe that progress can and must come from it.

Studies have shown that media representation of different ethnic groups is essential for these communities’ social presence as well as for the education of viewers about their lived experiences. It’s also noteworthy to remember that these representations, if derogatory (such as the aforementioned Chinese blackface), can seriously impact and subsequently skew audiences’ perceptions of other ethnicities.

Undoing beliefs that have been instilled for centuries is an obvious challenge, but it is significant to remember that our society has never been more exposed than it is now to a media that is challenging the parameters of beauty worldwide. In the case of China, a place currently considered a job hotspot for expats, I believe that the positive media representation and physical growth of different ethnic groups will allow for a substantial increase in representation. However, this alone is not enough. Ensuring that this representation is both empowering and ethical is the crucial next step in order to achieve a world with not only tolerance, but admiration for the countless skin tones that do, in fact, exist under the sun.


Photos (in order of appearance) by Takeshi Takagi, @Rosey-Ballerina, Ren Hang, and Fumi Nagasaka.