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China and Skin Whitening

Today’s post comes from Claire, who is by nature a linguist with a special passion for Mandarin. She loves dressmaking and rock climbing but has yet to find a way to combine the two.


Reading about body image and the relationship between your own body and your ‘ideal’ body (and the difference between the two) reminded me very much of some research I did in China a couple of years ago.  It is very easy to feel physically alienated in China – I’m taller than the average woman in the UK, with huge feet and ginger hair.  It was certain that in China my physical features would not only be noticed, but scrutinised and commented on.  With so many people in a short space in China there is very little sense of personal space, and it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to touch my hair and my face to see if foreigners’ skin and hair was as soft as they’d heard!  Some were disappointed.

Such an everyday acknowledgement of your physical appearance means that you think more about what is physically desirable and important, and led to a few frank conversations with near-strangers about what we liked and disliked about our own bodies.  As often happens, I moved from a casual observer to a note-taker and eventually to a researcher on physical beauty and its importance in China, particularly about the importance of fair skin in asserting your place in society.

I think it’s important to first paint a picture of modern, urban China.  Today’s cities have seen an enormous rise in the number of university students and therefore the number of graduates entering the workplace and looking for well-paid office jobs.  In addition, migrant workers with little to no education flood in from the countryside to take up roles in manufacturing, construction and (often) sex work – ‘blue-collar’ roles that pay minimum wage.  With no welfare safety net and the burden of elderly relatives (bear in mind the one-child policy means that a single child can end up caring for two parents and four grandparents), competition for the top jobs is fierce, and the gap between rich and poor is huge and ever-widening.

Against this background, women are routinely sidelined.  Despite the years of high communism in which women could and did achieve the same status as men, the new capitalist society presents a sort of wasteland: in the world of big business over communism, what role do women take?  As a result there is increasing pressure, levied mostly against women, to perform as well as to look beautiful.

We have seen this in the UK where an older, male newsreader is seated next to a younger, female newsreader.  However, what we do not often see is an open request for such beauty to be written into the job description.  As an example, a friend of mine had a three-month trial period as a receptionist and secretary at a law firm in Beijing.  After her trial period she was told that she had performed well but that she was not beautiful enough for them to take her on full-time.  Similarly, Peking University in Beijing requires that all students are over 5’1” tall to enter.  Job adverts routinely ask that women workers ‘are over 165cm tall and weigh less than 55kg’ or ‘must be under 27 and single’.  Whilst the heightism is often applied to men too, the requirement for women to be young and beautiful is especially strong.

In speaking to friends in China, I discovered that one of the critical factors for considering someone ‘beautiful’ was the fairness of their skin.  In fact, it’s often said that ‘being completely white can cure a thousand uglinesses’.  As you might expect, it reflects a job indoors in an office; it separates your work from that of the migrant labourers who work in the sun and tan brown, with the result that many whitening creams often sell their product as a return to the skin’s ‘natural’ state protected from the elements.  This is interesting as many of the products contain hydroquinone, an ingredient banned in the USA and the EU as a major carcinogen.

1 An advert showcasing the ‘natural’ beauty of the very young

**Skin colour charts

However, I also noticed a clear connection between whiteness and femininity.  Traditionally, a woman’s sphere was inside the home and a man’s was outside.  As late as the 1920s, the best compliment about a young lady was “I don’t know about her; I have never seen her”, and as a result, extremely fair skin is a feminine trait.  This has knock-on effects to do with gender presentation: whilst men tended to also desire fairer skin, their ‘ideal’ skin tone was 3 or 4 shades darker than the colour that women desired.  Also, whilst whitening creams for women are considered a way to return women to a ‘natural’ state, it is only acceptable for homosexual men to use whitening creams.  There is even an insult, xiao bai lian or ‘little white face’ to refer to ‘nancy boys’.  So the beauty expectations on women are greater than those on men.

2 The Von Luschan chromatic scale – a poor history but useful to allow interviewees to choose their own and their ideal skin colour.

It would be easy to presume think that I’m just setting out to prove that I have ‘better’ skin than Chinese women just because I’m Caucasian, but, whilst white women might have skin that is desirable, Caucasian women are generally seen to be ‘loose’ women – sexually permissive and lustily hungry.  This is clear in many of the adverts used around China: where an advert ‘sells sex’ a Western woman is used, but the Chinese models are presented as far more demure.  I have heard (but couldn’t substantiate this) that the government censors adverts with Chinese women presenting a bust over a C cup, but permits any size cup for a caucasian woman.  Sorry, I’d love to provide the reference but the Chinese government isn’t very open about what they censor and why!

3 Typical Western women in fashion magazines and their panasian counterparts

And, just in case you forgot the other social pressure on women to look good, have an amazing 6-part advert!  It sounds silly, but each is about 30 seconds long and it’s well worth watching.

Part 1:

Magazine is open: Getting married…in 7 days!

Voiceover: “All-new Pond’s ‘completely flawless whitener’; 7 days to revive true love

Part 2:

Amy thinking: “I’ve only got 7 days”

Voiceover: “Removes moles, freckles and dark spots” …. “be flawlessly white in 7 days”

Text: “I still love you”

Part 3:

Text 1: “I still love you”

Text 2: “Wishing you all the best”

Text 3: “I never want to see you again”

Voiceover: “Creates a cool, cloudy-white skin”

Paris advert: “A seven-day romantic trip”

Part 4:

Voiceover: As above

Part 5:

Text: The 7th day

Amy:7 days;  he’s finally returned to be with me!

Voiceover: As above

Part 6:

Voiceover: As above

Text at end: 7 days to revive true love, will you be next?


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