by YingYing Shang
Yeah, I know, stating the obvious, but in fact, even for someone of Chinese ethnicity, I am decidedly not on the pale end of the spectrum. And every time I flip open a fashion magazine here in America or visit my home city of Beijing, decked out with all its skin-lightening billboards, I am reminded that because of my skin tone, the world wants me to change.
Previously referenced as “the Snow White complex,” the pressure to be white has overtaken most of the world as an indisputable standard of beauty, despite the fact that every standard of beauty we try to mold ourselves to is culturally constructed.
In Asia and India, skin lightening has soared into popularity thanks to modern procedures. In places like Taiwan, more than 50 percent of women pay big money to lighten their beige, tan, and golden complexions. Whereas some argue that traditional Asian culture has always valued pale skin as a symbol of refinement, as a Chinese-American visiting Beijing, I see the media’s work in the faces of Western models on giant billboards along highways. I see the media as major reinforcement of the “white is beautiful” ideal that is so pervasive in Asia today. The pressure to be white is pushed by relentless advertising, from Japan to Korea to India. In fact, one of India’s most popular celebrities, Shah Rukh Khan, stars in an ad for skin-whitening products, sending a powerfully negative message to darker-skinned girls.
Fellow SPARK blogger Shanzeh Khurram, who resides in Pakistan, witnesses the Snow-White obsession in her exposure to media as well. The TV advertisements she sees show darker girls as ugly, insecure, unsuccessful, with no hope for love; the same girls, after using lightening creams, suddenly become happy, confident, and have men falling at their feet. Shanzeh finds it pathetic that “all of them seem to suggest that a girl’s worth is determined by how fair she is.”
I see the same terrible and self-destructive obsession with paleness in Beijing, yes, but also in America, in women of color. The whitewashing of singer Beyonce in L’Oreal advertisements and award-winning “Precious” actress Gabourey Sidibe in Elle Magazine have all made headlines as excluding women of color. Rihanna is another frequent victim of the whitewashing trend. But how does whitewashing actually affect girls?
Dr. Serena Butler-Johnson, a licensed psychologist in Washington, D.C. said in a Psychology Today interview that, “without external validation, young children and women can internalize ‘narrowly defined conceptions of beauty,’ resulting in feelings of inferiority, confusion, and exclusion.” Besides creating and reinforcing self-esteem issues around skin color, many skin-lightening creams include chemicals such as hydroquinone that work by stripping the skin of its natural pigmentation—the skin’s natural protection from the sun. Bleaching alters the skin’s structure fundamentally, often resulting in long-term skin issues and increased risk of skin-cancer—just like tanning. Shanzeh even reports that in Pakistan, many girls are so preoccupied with maintaining even a limited pallor that they don’t dare to play sports or engage in physical activity. From self-esteem to skin cancer to simply remaining indoors, the “Snow White” standard is inhibiting girls from attaining their full potential all over the world.
But there is nothing inherently beautiful about being white. Therein lies the supreme irony. While the media may attempt to convince us that we must change to be beautiful, these standards of beauty are 100% socially constructed. How do we know? Because everyone, no matter what their skin color, is sold insecurity.
Meanwhile, Caucasian girls who already have the pale skin that is sold as so desirable to women of color are continuously sold insecurity by another standard of beauty—that of the “healthy, tan, summer glow.” My school newspaper in Pennsylvania, The Spoke, recently headlined our June issue with coverage of the tanning phenomenon. One interviewed student, Jenna Stewart, reports that she tans four to five times a week, despite the 75% increase in risk of skin cancer.
“I think it’s just because everybody honestly wants to be tan,” Stewart said. “I think it’s a trend at our school; you go tanning.”
Tanning, just like skin bleaching, is decidedly destructive to health, but health comes second to beauty when the media convinces us that without changing ourselves to fit one standard of beauty, we cannot be desirable, successful, or happy.
The key is to realize that there is nothing inherently beautiful about a particular skin tone or facial structure. There are cultures that prize sharp teeth, cultures that celebrate curves, cultures that love elongated necks. There is no universal, inborn beauty standard that everyone is born knowing and fitting – or not fitting. Separate the culturally imposed standards from your own standard for yourself. See yourself as beautiful, not just for your appearance and skin color, but also for your real worth as a person. (Check out others’ real worth and submit your own at www.realworthcampaign.tumblr.com!)
Lastly, to fight against the imposition of the “one-standard of beauty,” support our Teen Vogue campaign and tell the media we want to see images of women of color, women of diverse beauty that will reinforce our self-esteem instead of tearing it down. Just because insecurity sells doesn’t mean you have to buy it.