Whiter is Better

February 28, 2008
White symbolizes innocence, pureness, and justice. In almost all religions, white is good, dark is evil. Our society reflects this common thought; Hollywood directors often use this technique of good and evil in their cinematography. For example, Darth Vader cloaks himself in black and enters the scene in Star Wars with an ominous tune, while his son, Luke Skywalker, clothes in white enters the story adorned in a bright halo. In other settings, like Western weddings, the bride almost always wears a white dress signifying her purity. These innocent techniques although seem harmless, but they perpetuate the notion that the whiter one is, the better he or she is. When applying this symbolism to skin colors, unfathomable effects result. But why does the whole world want to be whiter? What is the root of the cause and where did it originate?
If I were living in eastern Asia, when I turn on the TV I would be barraged by the plethora of commercials selling whitening cream or facial treatments that lightens the skin. Most of Westerners would find this absurd, but the majority of Asians buy into these claims. According to International Herald Tribune four out of ten women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan are using skin-whitening creams (Fuller). Most of the creams either contain mercury or hydroquinone; the latter may be a carcinogen (Fuller). Products that contain stronger bleaching ingredients flourish in the black market; those who used them found out in a couple of weeks that their cherished whiter skin breaks out into pink and brown blotches (Fuller). Despite the detrimental health risks, Asian women continually purchase these products. People ask me sometimes about this obsession with lighter skin, I would answer them with my aunt’s quote “It is beautiful, so healthy.” What an ironic statement!
Our understanding of science has enabled us to make these whitening creams accessible to the public. However, before all these creams that can permanently lighten the skin, face makeup provided a temporary solution. In Memoirs of a Geisha, Sayuri wears white face makeup and dresses in elaborate kimono which becomes the image we associate geishas with. The ghostly pale face attracts many patrons for Sayuri, a phenomenon most of us cannot comprehend. But the origin of white face makeup speaks a different story. Some speculate that the idea of white makeup was derived from China a long time ago; others hypothesize that a Japanese traveler went to Europe in the middle ages and saw beautiful pale girls, bringing in a new perspective on beauty.
Looking back in history, white face powder was not uncommon in Europe. To replicate the aristocracy look, men and women applied white powder heavily; the powder usually contained toxic ingredients like lead and arsenic, so overtime skin did appear lighter (but the user also developed mental problems so acute eventually leading to death). Those who looked slightly darker were deemed inferior in the aristocrats’ eyes because darker skin meant longer hours of sun exposure, which in turn implied field or labor work. People of different cultures when assimilated into the European culture faced formidable challenges over their own skin color. For example, Pocahontas hid her beautiful “red” skin with layers of powder after marrying John Rolfe and conforming to the English society. (The Disney version of the story did not include this part) This standard of white skin eventually spread to the other side of the world. After the discovery the New World, Australia, and New Zealand, and conquering of Africa, the white subjugators established caste systems based on skin color to uphold Old World’s societal system. The whites eventually proselytize the indigenous people into believing in this structure. Years and years of brainwashing convinced many into this sick caste; this is racism at its core.
I asked Serah, a Kenyan exchange student here at Valley “What is the beauty standard in Kenya for women?”
“Well, definitely big eyes, tall, and beauty markings. If you have all that, you would be considered beautiful.”
“Is there an emphasis on whiter or lighter-colored skin?”
“Yes, depending on the tribe. In my tribe, darker is better.”
I was shocked at this answer. Although I tried to conceal my astonishment, I asked another question, “So did beauty standards change after you (your countrymen) made contact with the Europeans?”
“Of course! Big time! About Thirty years ago, beauty marks were a huge thing, but not anymore. Everyone just wants to be lighter (colored skin), and slimmer. Same with big breasts, now it is the opposite.”
To further investigate this matter, I asked Ankita, my Indian American friend the same question. She answered with this:
“Being fair skinned is a very big part of being consider ‘beautiful’ in India. As you know, India is a very diverse country filled with different cultures, languages, religions, and even complexions. Therefore, a person that may not be considered fair in the north, could be considered fair in the South. Northern Indians are generally lighter skinned than Southern Indians.

I then had an extensive conversation with her about the root of the cause. I told her that maybe it is the contact with the Westerners that spurred this crazed pursuit of lighter skin. She instead answered “Contact with the Europeans only reinforced that idea. It has always been this way.” I guess racism is not the only cause.
I conjecture that decades from now, this quest for whiter skin will eventually subside. But until then, all children belonging to different ethnic groups will relinquish their ethnic identities and embrace this flawed idea of “whiter is better”.
Fuller, Thomas. "Glamour at a Price in Asia." International Herald Tribune 31 May 2006. 1 Jan. 2008 .

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