As early as I can remember, the last thing my mother would say to me as I skipped outdoors in the summertime wasn’t, “Be home by curfew.” The warning she’d most often call out on those hot, sunny days was, “Stay out of the sun!”
It didn’t matter if I were going to the park, on a boat, or to the beach. The admonition was the same. I didn’t question it when I was younger. Growing up in a Chinese-American household with images of glamorous Asian film stars and singers with their smooth, milky complexions, I thought it made sense. I was surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins who made a point of protecting their skin from summer rays with hats and high SPFs—for my family, it was the norm, and I accepted it without comment.
But as I grew older in a primarily Caucasian community, as I became more exposed to the world outside of my family, I started noticing differences between them and us. Little differences. Like how much admiration people received in school for their vacation tans. How in the summer, girls were going to the beach explicitly to achieve a richer tone, complaining that it wasn’t happening fast enough. How headlines in magazines extolled the virtues of makeup that would make you look more bronzed, sun-kissed, and other pretty words chosen carefully to make you feel beautiful, wild, and free.
I wanted acceptance from both worlds but was caught between two cultures and opposing schools of thought. How, then, could I define my beauty goals? I didn’t want to be lectured by my mom and grandma and clucked over disapprovingly. But I also wanted to fit in, to assimilate into the world where I spent the majority of my time. The conundrum, it soon became clear to me, was white versus gold, and I would spend the next decade trying to figure out which was the more precious commodity.
The Asian Beauty Standard
Whiteface: It’s not spoken of much here in the Western Hemisphere, but in the East, it’s a concept that’s had a long history in the world of beauty—even predating colonialism. Picture a geisha, that Japanese symbol of feminine allure. Or a Beijing opera actress, porcelain-skinned with a rosebud mouth. Caricatures, exaggerations, and performance artists as they are, they have long been considered the apex of beauty.
In China, Korea, Japan, India, and Thailand, countries that have set a great deal of stock in siloing their people by class, skin color created firm lines of division between the wealthy and the poor. The paler you were, the more obvious it was that you spent your life coddled inside, away from the harsh sun and hard labor in the fields under it. Paleness was a mark of prestige, a signifier that you were “kept.”
Granted, these are generalizations that are centuries old and should be outdated. But according to cosmetics trade reporter Andrew McDougall, the desire for white skin has simply evolved. Because “the first sign of aging on Asian skin is pigmentation, not wrinkles,” he says, “skin whiteners are not products to make people look Caucasian [but rather to hide aging].” So lighter pigmentation is still the ideal. Its projected $31.2 billion global market worth by 2024 is a solid testament to that.
Consider the current obsession over Korean skincare regimens, now massive even stateside. Today, we have access to more BB creams than we could ever try in a lifetime. But did you know that the reason for its popularity in Asia was not primarily for its skincare benefits but rather for its skin-whitening properties?
Even men aren’t immune to the desire to be as light and ageless as possible. In a 2016 study, about 50% of men in the Philippines were estimated to be purchasing skin-whitening and anti-aging ingestibles. In Thailand, per a 2015 study, that number is a whopping 69.5% among cis-male university students.
With the flourishing international trade of these products and the centuries-old standards established in the East to support this way of thinking, should I, a fully Asian woman, aspire to be snow-white? I had to wonder: Is white skin the key to seemingly immortal youth and beauty?
The American Beauty Standard
Growing up in the ’90s, the Wakefield twins of the Sweet Valley High series were the gold standard of all-American beauty. In every book, they were described within the first few pages as naturally blonde, with heart-shaped faces and luxuriantly, effortlessly tawny skin.
Once I first noticed it, I started seeing it everywhere. Magazine covers with tips on how to achieve the perfect tan. On every single person on Baywatch. Fitness and bikini models. Hell, any models at all.
At this age, girls at school started talking about tan lines and wearing body sprays that smelled like coconuts and sunshine. Bringing sunscreen to the beach was an uncool “mom” move; it was tanning oil with little (to no) SPF all the way. The darker you were, the more fun it meant you had. Richer hues gave you status. In other words, the opposite of my family’s Asian standards.
In 2008, prior to the Great Recession and the Affordable Care Act’s tanning tax, 18,200 tanning salons were doing a booming business in the U.S. However, as Americans became more aware of the damage hours in the sun can cause and its effects on aging, these businesses have been on the decline. Despite this, coppery skin is still considered slimming, youthful, and healthy. Typically described as “glowing” and “sun-kissed,” the connotations remain hugely positive, and you’ll still see hundreds suntanning at the beach, hungrily absorbing every ray.
Tanning bed alternatives have also come to the forefront. Spray tans became a thing when Paris Hilton was rumored to have invested in her own machine, and the long list of celebrities that swear by these services grows with every year. Advancements in this space mean no more Cheeto-orange; artists can even create “sculpted tans,” airbrushing faux muscle definition right onto the skin.
Richer hues gave you status. In other words, the opposite of my family’s Asian standards.
And who hasn’t heard of bronzer? It changed the game in the early 2010s and still has momentum with the advent of contouring kits. Together, sunless options alone were a projected $763.4 million industry in 2015.
And to revisit BB cream, in order to market it to the States, Estée Lauder—among other brands—removed their formula’s skin-lightening properties, because they knew Americans want their skin gloriously gold. Asians, on the other hand, already struggle with being seen as “yellow.” A quintessential “Twinkie” or “banana,” in slang terms, I’m ancestrally Asian but culturally American. Socially, I more strongly identify with the latter, so I should be striving to end every summer burnished to smoked caramel, right?
Which Standard Is Most "Beautiful?"
As an Asian-American, the waters are murky. I had my mother warning me ominously about sunspots and freckles, and bemoaning how easily my skin drank up the rays. I had friends who griped about their winter skin and sympathized with having to buy foundation labeled “fair” instead of “honey.” No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t fit into either circle completely.
But as I'd soon learn, it doesn’t have to be that way.
It happened in college. There, I started learning to paint, and as I discovered the gorgeous subtleties and hidden colors in women’s faces, I began to appreciate more and more that it was this lack of uniformity that drew me to painting portraits. Also in college, I was exposed to greater diversity and the beauty standards of other cultures outside of my own personal experience. I began to receive praise for the quality of my complexion, and in time, my priorities shifted from worrying about the color of my skin to how best to care for it, no matter what shade it happened to be.
In addition, by surrounding myself with women who embraced intellect over aesthetics, I became more comfortable in my own skin. Finally, it clicked: For years, I’d been exposed to just two colors—white and gold—but in reality, the world and its people come in so many stunning colors, why should I have to choose just one as ideal? Why did I have to prefer one hue over another?
My priorities shifted from worrying about the color of my skin to how best to care for it, no matter what shade it happened to be.
Since then, I haven’t.
Here’s what I know now: All skin is beautiful if it’s hydrated and taken care of. All skin glows when health comes first—when you eat right and sleep well and consider internal happiness the most important thing.
So this summer, I won’t decide. I won’t let my appearance be prescribed by others or dictated by tradition. I won’t be one of those Asian women walking around under a big hat and sunbrella. Nor will I be one of those sunbathers slathering myself with tanning oil, either. Rather, I’ll put on my SPF 45 and see where the summer takes me.
Peltzer K, Pengpid S, James C. The globalization of whitening: prevalence of skin lighteners (or bleachers) use and its social correlates among university students in 26 countries. Int J Dermatol. 2016;55(2):165–172. doi:10.1111/ijd.12860