Laura Gao is a comic artist and writer based anywhere with good wifi, espresso, and bread! Born in Wuhan, China, Laura immigrated to the U.S. and grew up in Texas. Her work has been featured on NPR, PBS, and her parents’ fridge. Laura’s debut graphic memoir, MESSY ROOTS, about her identity search as a queer Chinese-American in conservative small-town Texas, is coming out in January 2022 with HarperCollins.

Why is There an Asian Obsession with ‘Whitening’ in Skin Care?

I first became aware of the Asian fixation with lighter skin colour when I was a child. My mother is Malaysian-Chinese, and during the yearly visits to our family for Chinese New Year, I began to notice that my mum was a lot darker in skin tone than her sisters (my aunts), as well as my Po Po. When I asked her about it one year after we returned home, she laughed and said she had always embraced her natural skin colour since she was a young girl. My mum especially loved being in the sun, whereas the other women in our family would diligently shade themselves under umbrellas to protect themselves whenever it was a hot, sunny day – which in tropical Malaysia is (unsurprisingly) extremely often. 

This desire for ‘fair skin’ is not just limited to my family. According to a WHO survey, almost 40% of women polled in places such as China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea said they used whitening products regularly. In 2017, Global Industry Analysts valued the skin-whitening industry at US$4.8 billion, and the market is predicted to grow to almost US$9 billion by 2027, with most of this increase originating from Asian markets. 

It is a worrying trend, to say the least. But why is there this incessant drive towards being ‘fair/white’? 

For many countries, the impact of colonisation and its legacy immediately springs to mind. However, another reason also dominates: across Asia, colourism is a widespread issue. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group,” colourism results in the creation of biases between people of the same ethnic group. In parts of Asia, there exists a link between the colour of your skin and your socio-economic standing, due to an extremely dated belief that the dark nature of one’s skin tone is related to working outside in labour-intensive, low-paying jobs. By contrast, those who are lighter-skinned must, therefore, have jobs that do not require them to labour outside, so instead, they must work indoors in more affluent jobs and so must be higher in terms of socio-economic status. 

In essence, those who are darker-skinned receive the brunt of discrimination – they are viewed as less favourably in society in terms of economic status, attractiveness, and social class compared to those who are lighter-skinned.

As I said, this view is extremely dated.

Nevertheless, its effects can still be seen across the continent. In East Asian countries, women wear long sleeves and visors and carry umbrellas in the hot summers to shield themselves from the sun. In Central, West, and South/Southeast Asia, however, the impact is more extreme due to the increasing differences in skin colour across the population. Skin whitening/bleaching products are extremely popular – in countries such as India and Pakistan for example, one of the most prevalent brands of lightening cream is called ‘Fair and Lovely,’ as though you can only be lovely by being fair (Unilever have since renamed their ‘Fair and Lovely’ range this year, although this move in itself has also been criticised by many as merely a performative act).  

The existence of these products not only ensures such biases are reinforced, but they also foster and encourage them to continuously remain in society. 

However, it is not just the reinforcement of these old-fashioned beliefs, which is worrying. These bleaching products are extremely dangerous, as the impacts on your health can be catastrophic. Research group Frontiers in Public Health found that whitening products from India contained dangerous chemicals, including mercury, while more than half of the products tested also contained steroids that are extremely harmful for skin. The WHO also released a report in 2019 about the dangers of mercury in skin lightening products, saying that:

“Adverse health effects…include kidney damage: skin rashes, skin discolouration and scarring, reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis, and peripheral neuropathy.”

It is important to note as well that although many of these whitening products are geared towards women, there exists a worrying increase in male interest too. In Thailand, many clinics now offer treatments for men, such as injecting glutathione substances into their skin to accelerate the whitening process.  

East Asia is also not exempt from an obsession with being fair. Skincare products, such as those from South Korea, are marketed by companies as being ‘whitening’ or ‘brightening’ but do not themselves contain any active bleaching ingredients. Rather, these products are focused completely on skin tone and radiance. Similar to how products in the West are marketed as being ‘anti-aging,’ these brightening products work to reduce dark spots, acne scars, or hyperpigmentation so that the overall effect is more even skin tone and texture. The emphasis is on your skin glowing, not becoming lighter in colour.

However, the sale and distribution of ‘whitening/brightening’ skincare products in these countries should still be viewed with alarm. Although they don’t contain active bleaching ingredients, these terms play into the stereotype that to be desirable and beautiful is to be light-skinned and fair. These discriminatory views then trickle down into society. Examples in recent years include South Korea’s first half-black model, Han Hyun-Min, recounting the open racism he faced growing up due to his mixed heritage, and a recent article by CNN reported that minorities often face discrimination and racism in Hong Kong due to the colour of their skin, despite the fact that many of them were actually born and raised in the city. 

Though ‘whitening’ and ‘brightening’ may just be terms used in skincare, they play into the wider overall impact of colourism and prejudice that many darker-skinned Asians still face today. There is evidence of changing notions of beauty standards in the younger generations, such as the rise to fame of Naomi Wang Ju in mainland China, but overall it appears that the Asian continent has a long way to go in eradicating this prejudice of colourism. For my money, banning skin bleaching products seems like a pretty good way to start. 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

You can find announcements, more news, and get to know our staff on social media: give us a follow, and learn how you can get involved today!

We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

We hope you’ll join us.

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