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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung, Ana Paulina Lee, Authors

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Asia's Skin Whitening Craze

There is a clear preference in East Asian societies for fair, unblemished skin.  I first became aware of this while traveling in Japan in 2006.  Ladies of all ages stopped me on the street and admired my very fair skin.  As a middle school student then, I did not thoroughly understand the reason for this interest.  Now, a few years later as an active participant in a USC research trip I have gained a deeper understanding of this phenomenon.  One cannot stroll through the city of Hong Kong without encountering a variety of advertisements for expensive beauty products; the vast majority advertises whitening skin care regimens.  These advertisements are not just limited to a female audience.  Whitening products are also being marketed to men, though to a lesser degree. 

Some examples of this current marketing reach are shown in the following commercials for skin lightening:

The concept of skin whitening and the pale skin beauty ideal is not new.  The practice of recoloring one’s skin is directly related to the desire to achieve higher social status.  Historically, a person's skin color has been a clear indicator of economic and social status. As early as pre-Qin China, there has been an association between one's wealth and one's skin color.  Farm laborers who made a living by working in the sun were easily distinguishable from the Chinese upper class by their skin tone: farm laborers were darkened by the sun while the nobility were able to stay indoors and avoid sun damage. The same skin-whitening phenomenon occurred in the west during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Aristocrats at the time used a dangerous bleaching product, lead oxide, in order to differentiate themselves from the lower class laborers.  The historic correlation between economic status and skin color naturally lead to the development of a variety of treatments in order to correct an "undesirable" dark skin tone.

The pale-skin beauty ideal is deeply embedded within East Asian culture.  China in particular has several old sayings which associate fair skin with desirability.  For example, the saying: ‘white, fortuitous, beautiful!’ That is the standard for female beauty (白富美, bai fu mei).  Another old Chinese saying states: "One whiteness can cover three kinds of ugliness."  These sayings emphasize that having fair skin can "cover up" one’s faults.  With respect to women, these sayings lead many to believe that if a woman has a pale complexion, she will be considered beautiful and desirable.

Additionally, there are many Chinese myths with respect to skin-whitening methods.  For example, a traditional Chinese myth asserts that pearls help to lighten ones skin; drinking pearl powder and hot water mixture supposedly brightens one's complexion.  There are also myths which associate the consumption of darker colored foods with darkening one's skin.  Eating too much soy sauce allegedly makes skin more tan while pregnant women are often advised not to drink chocolate milk so that their children are not born with a dark complexion. 

Given my upbringing in the U.S., I know well that people of all skin colors can be good citizens, enjoy family life, and succeed both in business and enterprise.  The excessive preoccupation in East Asia about having a light skin is concerning, particularly since there is little scientific evidence that some of the products and diets that are suggested do, indeed, contribute to the lightening of one’s skin.  It is best if young men and women do not associate the idea of finding a good job or having a higher social status with the color of their skin. The combination of many other attributes such as a good education, sensitivity to others in need, volunteerism, and a passion for the environment is what brings about a sense of self esteem in people regardless of gender or age.  In my opinion, it is this feeling of self-worth that makes a person feel meaningful, no matter the color of their skin.

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