Wealthy, powerful shape our beauty standards

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/14 21:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The conversation started in an innocuous way with our Vietnamese tour guide asking me a question that most tour guides use to break the ice: "Where are you from?"

"Originally from China," I said when we were wandering the streets of Hanoi on a privately guided tour of the dynamic capital city of Vietnam. Then, I added, innocently: "but I have been living in New York for 17 years."

"Yes, I can tell," he said.

"Really? How?" I was a little shocked.

After all these years, I know I might have more or less changed, but aren't these types of changes brought about by immigration supposed to be invisible, at least to someone you just met. How come a stranger can tell the difference right after he saw me?

"It's a hard question to answer," he smiled coyly, and then murmured only after I pressed harder: "Chinese women I saw all have pale skin." Oh, well. "Then would people mistake me for a Vietnamese?" I asked. "Er...no." He is now more straightforward. "Vietnamese women also have pale skin, and they have double eyelid while Chinese women have single eyelid."

Then he looked at my husband, a pale-skinned Caucasian, and said, "When people see you are with him, they are even surer that you are not a Vietnamese."

"Why?" I said. "There are Vietnamese women married to Western men."

"Yes, but those are all women with pale skin and big eyes. That's the type of women Western men like," he said matter-of-factly. This prompted my husband to give a powerless but dutiful defense for his breed: "No, that's not true." But the defense was met with a more assertive rebuttal from our tour guide: "Yes, it is true in Vietnam."

The conversation struck me as very amusing. I am very well aware of the obsession of Chinese and many other Asians about having or gaining pale skin. Growing up in China, I've heard numerous comments from adults around me on how a woman's pale skin can cover all the flaws in her appearance. When I was in middle school, some girls in my class who were born with darker skin had started to use cosmetic white powder to lighten their faces. A few years after I moved to the US, a picture of a group of middle-aged Chinese women on a beach in Qingdao wearing the alien-like facekini that covers up most of their faces from the sun hit the New York Times, and announced the obsession to the world. The obsession had never bothered me as a child because I was indeed born with pale skin and had received many compliments because of that.

But once you are in the US, it doesn't take long for a pale-skinned Asian woman to not only accept but also admire tanned skin. After a whole summer of outdoor swimming, my skin often gets darker, and the winter breaks to tropical paradises help maintain the seasonal color almost year round. And just like I did in China for my pale skin, I received many compliments for my tanned skin in the US. Only a few days before I left the US for a vacation in Asia, some friends told me that they envied my "beautiful tan." And these included some Chinese immigrants who, like me, come from a country where only pale skin can be considered beautiful.

This may sound like just another cultural difference between the US and China which works only as a convenient reminder that the popular tanning beds in the US may not be able to find a market in China. But there might be more hidden in these aesthetics than that of which we are immediately aware.

East Asians' obsession with pale skin seems to me a hangover from an agricultural society where a light skin tone suggested someone had a relaxing and prosperous life far from the farm. And the preference for tanned skin in the US is partly at least because in a modern society, tanned skin means the person has enough time and money to enjoy outdoor activities. And therefore it is not a surprise that it is mainly white women who set the standard. There is also a sense that it looks healthier in the West - and glossy women's magazines have played a big role in that. 

These may only be my own reasonable assumptions. But American psychologists Kenneth Bancroft Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark found in their famous doll experiment in the 1940s that most children, including black children, thought white dolls looked better than black dolls. The experiment was repeated over time right up until today and the results show gradual changes.

In one, ABC TV network anchors Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts surveyed 19 black children and found more children related themselves to and were willing to play with black dolls than white dolls. That was in 2009, the year Barack Obama became the first black US president.

When judging beauty, we may think we are simply following our hearts. But the criteria are more arbitrary than intuitive. People on TV and in magazines seem to set the semi-subconscious standards for the rest of us, from skin color to eye size to body shape. In other words, wealth and power rule beauty.

Until the day we get a say, it doesn't hurt to keep this in mind.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com


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