Lighter, Whiter, Brighter: Identity Construction Through the Rise of Skin Whitening

Our identity is a set of characteristics or practices we set out to achieve in order to uniquely define our individuality. Whether it’s cultural tradition, career accomplishments, or choice of clothing, our identity can be symbolized in a variety of ways. The beauty expectations in Asia has changed drastically in the past few decades as the rise of fair skin has become a popular commodity. These expectations have resulted in women participating in skin whitening practices and disciplines in order to achieve an acceptable and prestigious identity through the shade of their skin. Through these expectations, the Asian culture has strongly relied on fair skin as the determinant of their overall identity.

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Artistic depiction of Qin Dynasty nobility who had pale white skin

Skin whitening is not a new phenomenon in Asia. In China, this beauty expectation began several centuries ago in the pre-Qin dynasty. If an individual had fair skin, he or she would most likely belong in the Chinese upper class and hold strong socioeconomic standing, as opposed to the individuals with tanned skin, who are considered to be lower class because their dark skin tone was a result of working out in the sun – which would associate them with manual labor.

Even though this beauty practice has a long history in Asian countries, its sudden rise in the last few decades has been catalyzed by emerging technology and increase public access to consumption of skin whitening products. From small local vendors to beauty corporations, players in the beauty industry soon recognized the potential profit they could gain from capitalizing on the power of the skin whitening culture. Many people regarded this explosion of skin whitening practice to influences from Western culture due to a history of colonialism and the perception of prestige associated with the West.

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Advertisement displaying the “dirty” blemishes associated with tanner skin
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“Let’s Get Married” Movie Poster

In Sandra Lee Bartky’s “Foucault, Femininity, and Patriarchal Power,”Bartky explores the many disciplinary practices that women must pursue and learn in order to exude femininity. From maintaining “soft, supple, hairless, and smooth” skin, to maintaining a good selection of makeup and wardrobe, all these practices contribute towards creating and maintaining a long-term feminine identity (Bartky 98). As the production of high-tech beauty products increased with advanced technology, so did the expectation for women to uphold these feminine practices. While some may view these new and emerging products as positive inventions because they provide more accessibility and ease for the user, in reality, they only generate more social pressure as beauty standards to create the ideal identity are increased. Bartky’s study of femininity and identity can be applied to the skin whitening culture in Asia. Achieving and maintaining lighter skin creates more than just a feminine characteristic for a woman, it also demonstrate’s their economic capital, their cultural capital, and the level of desirability. Because the traditional Asian culture places strong emphasis on a woman’s ability to marry, her identity must appear feminine and exude the right desirable physical features to achieve that goal. The popular Chinese movie “Let’s Get Married” explores the concept of marriage among four couples. Even though the four women all come from different socio-economic class and career backgrounds, one characteristic they all share is the color of their skin and how it contributes to their feminine identity. Furthermore, many skin whitening use keywords such as “perfect” to describe their product. The purpose behind the utilization of these keywords is to demonstrate that the consumer can construct the perfect skin which will create the perfect identity through these products. This in turn has the potential to further the stigmatization that all other types of skin color as imperfect.

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Famous Chinese Actress Fang Bing Bing advocating for L’Oreal’s “White Perfect” skin brightening treatment

Thornstein Veblen in “The Theory of the Leisure Class” states that long-term consumption of products can make the product appear as “necessary of life” and the increase of consumption and conspicuous leisure is also tied to the temptation of being able to demonstrate such acquired wealth (Veblen 61). In the case of skin whitening, the demonstration isn’t necessarily directly tied to physical products, such as the acquiring of expensive clothing or handbags, but the color of one’s skin. The presence of fair skin has the ability to speak volumes about one’s identity as immediate assumptions are made from the external audience.

For instance, In Nivea’s Body Whitening Cream advertisement, two young Thailand women gain the immediate attention from men on the street when they reveal the light skin they achieved with Nivea’s body whitening products. The immediate increase of their desirability is clearly displayed as the men demonstrate their instant attraction to the women’s light skin skin. Even though the men in the advertisement may not be aware of the true identity of the two women, their lack of knowledge is superseded by the positive identity assumptions made based on these women’s skin. They may immediately assume, from the presence of fair skin on the two women, that they are culturally aware, of high socio-economic class, feminine, confident, successful, and many other positive attributes. Whether this is in fact true or not is irrelevant in this instance as the women’s goal of portraying their ideal identity has succeeded in line with society’s expectations. And as the advertisement states, this was all achieved through Nivea’s cosmetic product.

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Nivea Body Whitening Thailand advertisement

Success in creating an identity through one’s shade of skin requires a significant amount of cultural and economic capital. Products from large beauty corporations, such as L’Oreal Paris and Shiseido, are deemed high in quality and status. A woman’s ability to distinguish between brands demonstrate the amount of care, knowledge, and discipline she dedicates to crafting her identity. As stated by Roach and Eicher in “Language of Personal Adornment,” the adornment one places on their physical self can clearly “distinguish the power from the weak, the rich from the poor” (Roach, Eicher 112). And while these adornment can be deceptive and craft a manipulated identity, their purpose is deception, and it can also be argued as inevitable as society has placed emphasis on forming judgement based off of external cues – the skin tone of an individual being an important one.

My roommate, who is an expert in consumption of skin care products, has light skin. However, as a former competitive athlete, her exposure to the sun gave her tanned skin for several years. When I spoke to her about her skin tone transition, she said,

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An assortment of skin-whitening products used by my roommate

“My skin was dark for two years due to the large amount of outdoor sports I participated in. After decreasing my competitive sports activities, I dedicated five years to transitioning my dark skin to pale skin using a variety of beauty products. During these five years, my friends, acquaintances and relatives began to take notice of my skin tone changes. Many remarks were made, such as ‘wow you got paler and prettier from last year,’ or ‘wow you look more like a girl now.’ In a way, it felt like my character and life was reflected through my skin color.”

The physical appearance remarks my roommate received about her skin color played a role in forming her social identity. Her acquaintances and friends are able to notice her change and identify with her through their knowledge of the positive attributes tied to skin whitening. An individual’s decision to whiten their skin  allows them to form a common ground with others as they are transferred into a different social circle from their original one. These individuals are aware of the social benefits that are tied to their pale skin just as they are aware of the potential stigma associated with darker skin – low economic class, lack of femininity, and undesirable.

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Liu Wen in a skin brightening cosmetic advertisement

Jeff Yang expresses his concern of the perception of Asian heritage designers and models in “Why the Rise of Asia in Fashion Isn’t as Beautiful as it Seems.” and his concern can also be applied to the skin whitening culture. Even though there are a higher number of Asian models and celebrities in the entertainment industry, these Asian individuals don’t always fully represent or embody their cultural or racial identity. As Minh-Ha Pham states in Yang’s article, “What worries me is that the success of Asian American designers and models are becoming fashion’s alibi for its continued problems with race” (Yang). Prominent Asian supermodels, such as Liu Wen, are influential in the fashion industry as they represent their culture in a competitive and caucasian-dominated industry. However, in spite of her success and the importance of her representing her Asian identity, she is still expected to conform to the expectations of perfect white skin – as her career success and popularity will most likely be negative affected should she choose not to.

The perceived benefits of skin whitening has allowed this practice to gain importance and achieve a strong role in shaping an individual’s overall identity. It identifies individuals who take part in this practice as culturally knowledgeable, financially competent, feminine, and successful. They are able to disengage themselves from the stigma associated with their original tanner-skin identity and take part in a new identity with more benefits. These individuals recognize the advantages and power that skin whitening cosmetics hold and their decision to heavily engage with these products result in further affirmation the identity perceptions associated with skin whitening.

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WORKS CITED

Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Femininity and Domination: Studies  in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990. 93-111. Print.

Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment,” Fashion Theory, Routledge, 2007. 109-121. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998. 23-70. Print.

Yang, Jeff. “Why The Rise of Asia in Fashion Isn’t As Beautiful as it Seems” The Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2012. Web. 5 May 2015 <http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/09/17/why-the-rise-of-asia-in-fashion-isnt-as-beautiful-as-it-seems/&gt;

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