Words by Maggie Zhou Art by Matthew Mendoza
It’s not always black and white.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? And we mean fairest. We want the brightest and whitest complexion, the widest eyes, the most surgically enhanced features. Around the world, especially saturating Asian countries, is this obsession to fulfil a rigid and demanding beauty standard.
Skin whitening is at the forefront of this epidemic. Creams, pills, scrubs and injections are all used in hopes of lightening skin tone. We are quick to scream inclusivity in this globalised world, but the prevalence of these products tells us otherwise. This is called colourism, a system that privileges lighter skin, usually within the same ethnic or racial group.
It’s heavily ingrained within our society, not just from a mere beauty standpoint. A 2011 US study found that light-skinned Black women receive shorter prison sentences than their darker counterparts. Another study in 2015 found that light-skinned Black and Hispanic interviewees were perceived as more intelligent than darker-skinned job applicants with the same qualifications. In India, studies have shown a drastic gap in career and dating opportunities due to skin colour.
Historically, it stems from casteism as well as British and European colonialism, where whiteness is synonymous with power and status. In other Asian cultures, darker skin is usually associated with manual labour, like farming, which is indicative of a lower class.
40% of Chinese women regularly use skin-lightening creams. That figure increases to 61% in India and again to 77% in Nigeria. It’s on the rise, too. By 2020, the market for skin lightening products is expected to reach $30.5 billion Aussie dollars.
It’s sickeningly dangerous as well. There are anti-melanin skin-whitening products available – melanin protects our skin from sun damage so reducing it can increase risks of skin cancers. Other products include mercury, hydroquinone and corticosteroids which are linked to poisoning, skin damage and liver and kidney malfunction. Not so pretty now, right?
For us here, where tanned skin is highly sought-after, it may sound a world away. But, that’s where you’re wrong. Brands we know and supposedly love feed into this destructive market.
An advert from Nivea shows a Black woman applying Nivea’s Natural Fairness cream to her body. As she rubs it in, her skin literally becomes lighter, like magic. And the voiceover promises the cream will ‘restore’ her skin to its natural fairness. *Bleurgh.* L’Oreal’s White Perfect range ‘cleanses skin from impurities’ to give you a ‘fair complexion’. Because you can only be perfect if you’re white, yeah? That’s what I’m hearing. Fair & Lovely is another leading brand that targets dark-skinned people and promotes a desire for lighter skin. Never heard of it? They’re owned by Unilever who also own Dove, among other major companies. Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaigns seem full of shit now, hey?
Let’s continue on our cultural expedition. South Korea is known as the plastic surgery capital of the world. It’s been reported that one in three South Korean women between the ages of 19 and 29 have gone under the knife.
We’ll start off gently. Contact lenses – particularly circle lenses which make eyes appear bigger – are widely popular (pun unintended). With the inclusion of coloured lenses, it’s easy to appear mixed race or more ‘white’. This is widespread in mainstream media – if Asians even get to feature on the big screen (hey Hollywood, we don’t want to be cast as the nerdy sidekick anymore).
Moving on up, eyelid surgery is the most popular form of surgery in South Korea. Its purpose is to create a crease in one’s eyelid – usually by removing skin, muscle and fat from the area. It’s pretty normal for parents to gift their child one of these procedures or a nose job when they leave high school.
It’s hard to believe that this little crease has caused so much uproar. Many (mostly white) people find the trend confusing and are baffled about the apparent attractiveness of double eyelids. A popular belief among (again, mostly white) people is that Asians undergo this procedure to try and look more Western.
There’s this fixation on eurocentrism that kind of condescendingly says, “Hey world! Why do you keep trying to look like us? You’re all, like, beautiful in your own way.” I imagine it’s said with a hair flick and a sense of pity and superiority.
That being said, I’m not ruling out racism for this preference of double eyelids. But, it’s not always about wanting to be white. I mean, yes, Chinese American media figure Julie Chen was basically forced into undertaking this surgery because she was told she looked “too Asian” and “disinterested” for television but she now openly admits that she has “no regrets about [it].”
Others argue that the crease falls under the ideal, traditional Asian aesthetic. Many Asians who have had the surgery say it was to make their eyes appear more open and alert. Most defend their actions as a personal beauty choice.
At the end of the day, it should be up to the individual to decide how they wish to look. And it’s up to that person to ask themselves why – for them to be honest and really ask themselves why they want to lighten their skin or why they want bigger eyes. Is it just to look ‘prettier’? Or, perhaps, is it alluding to something more sinister crawling beneath their skin?