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Chinese women want white skin

July 25, 2010

As an American, especially as a Californian, I was surprised to see that the majority of women in Beijing in the summertime walk around with sun umbrellas. This is because in China, white skin is considered beautiful. As if the plethora of sun umbrellas and advertisements for skin cremes wasn’t evidence enough, but my on of my Chinese teachers (laoshi), in lecture, actually used this as an example sentence, “In China, white is considered beautiful.” (There’s no PC in the PRC.)

The Kenyan girl in my class defiantly informed Hu laoshi that in Kenya, black is considered beautiful.

But of coure, Hu laoshi had no idea he was being offensive. As China has almost no black people, and very few white people, the desire for light skin has little to do with race and everything to do with social status. Laborers work out in the sun and have dark skin. Scholars, businessmen, professionals, and pretty much all rich people have the luxury of staying indoors and in the shade.

Thus, Chinese women everywhere tote around their sun umbrellas, use “skin whitening cream” (actually just sunscreen) and all kinds of bleaches and powders to appear more white.

As strange as this seemed to me at first, a reflection on history quickly reminded me that “tan is beautiful” is an historical anomaly.  The 1930s had Snow White. Not until the 1990s did princess Jasmine show up. (And hell, it wasn’t until last year that Princess Tianna finally rounded out the Disney Princess lineup!)

According to Wikipedia, it was not until the 1940s that tanning started showing up in women’s magazines in America and Europe.  My guess is that the glorification of athletic bodies and the mass migration to the Sunbelt of the US also spurred the “tan is beautiful” sentiment.  There was also a link to Vitamin D, and a general understanding in mid-20th century America that getting outdoors was healthy (a good sentiment, I think). So, a tan body became equated with a healthy body.

Well, I’ll always prefer tan skin to white skin, but hey – culturally constructed ideas of beauty are powerful entities.

Beauty is fascinating. Nature obviously influences what we find to be beautiful – hourglass figured women being one example (fertility indicator), men with muscle being another (can protect woman and potential future child) – but culture comes right back at it, shapes it, sometimes distorts what we find beautiful. If you ask me, the white skin/dark skin thing is totally cultural.

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