east asian beauty

Photo credit: "Memoirs of a Geisha" the movie (2005)

East Asians Wanted Paler Skin Before Colonisation

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Jun. 5 2019, Published 3:40 p.m. ET

A few days ago, we published an article over on our brother site Bleu about the skin bleaching trend in Jamaica. But they’re not the only people that desire paler skin. East Asians, in particular, have been actively whitening their skin for centuries — but it has nothing to do with Western beauty ideals, and here’s why.

Many East Asian cultures built their civilisations on agriculture. The Lunar calendar that all East Asian countries still use for reference today was initially established in order to predict the weather so farmers can have better harvests. In ancient times, farmers and peasants had tanned skin because of their daily labour work in the hot sun; royalties and privileged people would have had a pale complexion as they got to relax indoors or at least stay mostly in the shade. Over centuries, these simple differences developed into genetic components, and sometimes the children of the “pureblood” upper class were born with whiter skin (less melanin?) than the peasants’ offsprings.

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There is an old expression in both the Chinese and Japanese languages that literally goes “one white covers three uglies”, which essentially translates to: you can cover up three shortcomings if you are white. As a senior executive for famous Japanese cosmetics brand Shiseido said in an interview:

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“Whitening is everything. You can just cover all your defective parts if you are white.”

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“Whitening is everything. You can just cover all your defective parts if you are white.”

As a matter of fact, the same phenomenon occurred in the West during the Renaissance period, too. The European women of social prestige desired a pale and unblemished complexion, and frequently sought out outrageous methods such as painting mercury on their faces or applying leeches to their skin. In ancient Japan, noble women as well as both male and female theatre performers would apply thick white powder on their face to make themselves appear completely pale. This was seen as uniform. But they did not use makeup to enlarge their eyes back then, as the typical East Asian “oriental” beauty was still desired among both local and foreign businessmen and soldiers, and the Japanese took great pride in their culture that trying to impersonate white caucasians was a shameful thing to do.

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Moving onto the modern day of globalisation, while some more active East Asians have started embracing a tanner skin tone due to the Western notion of rich people going on sunny vacations and/or having an active lifestyle, other old-minded East Asians still consider a darker complexion to be undesirable. Even nowadays, tanner skin is often associated with hard labourers and therefore a lower social status. In Taiwan, for example, the capital city Taipei is situated on the north end of the island as the least-developed, suburban countryside Tainan is down south. To the Taiwanese, being pale means you are from the sophistication of the city, and being tan means you probably come from a family line of farmers.

The idea that white skin is better was deeply ingrained in East Asian cultures long before any contact with European whites. It is important to remember that East Asians’ pale skin envy has nothing to do with European colonisation, but instead has its own cultural validity and independent reasonings as a perennial tradition. Regardless, these outdated beliefs are reinforcing the East‘s very own version of colourism and should be diminished at all cost, so we can embrace our lifestyle differences and appreciate each other as respectful individuals.

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