White is beautiful…

Okay, I know it’s been a while. I won’t promise to turn over any new blogging leaves, because every time I do…I don’t write again for six months or so. However, Joel bribed me into writing this one (he’ll arrange dinner if I write) and if he keeps making deals like that, you may hear from me a little more often.

This may actually end up being a post series…I keep getting into these really interesting conversations with some of my Chinese friends and keep uncovering more and more fascinating little tidbits that just beg to be shared. Lately, most of these have been regarding the differences between what Chinese and Westerners think of as “beautiful” or “attractive.” I’m not presenting any textbook facts here, or citing any surveys to support anything I’m about to say…just sharing a few anecdotes from recent conversations that have been pretty interesting.

In Taiwan, it was not unusual for some of the older ladies to come up to me and make a big fuss about how white my skin is. At first I thought, wow…I must look really sickly for them to be making this big of a deal over it. Then it dawned on me that I was white and that they LIKED it. It’s nearly impossible to buy any kind of moisturizer or beauty product over here that doesn’t have added “whitening” components. There are whitening creams for parts of the body that I had never even dreamed might need whitening. When friends (foreign or Chinese) go get facials, even I can tell that they have become whiter. It’s also not unusual to hear ladies that haven’t seen each other for a little while say something along the lines of (in a very excited tone of voice) “你变白了!” (You got whiter!)…or (in a “What happened to you?” tone of voice) “你变黑了!” (You got darker…).

My best joke lately has to do with what happens if someone as white as me goes and gets these “whitening” beauty treatments that are available everywhere. I tell my friends that I’m afraid I’ll turn clear…and then they won’t be able to see me. I also have another foreign friend (who is also pale) that recently got engaged to a local guy. On hearing that she must (as part of her preparation for the wedding) schedule a whole round of these beauty treatments, we joked… “What if she turns invisible? Then her husband won’t be able to find her!” Okay, maybe you have to be here and be surrounded by the obsession with whiteness for it to actually be humorous, but we thought it was a knee-slapper.

Having never paid much attention to my own skin color, or that of those around me (except for “working on my tan” while camping in the summer), it’s a bit disconcerting to know that one of the first thoughts that run through the minds of people here (mostly other women, I think) when they meet me has to do with how white I am. I don’t know why this is so disconcerting, except that from my viewpoint, the difference between my skin color and the color of my Chinese friend’s skin is minimal. But from their viewpoint, or at least judging from the things that are said, it seems like this is a very big and important difference between us.

It’s also been fun to watch the reaction from my Chinese friends when they hear about beauty ideals from the Western side of things. Though the idea of a “healthy tan” may eventually get more popular, at this point the idea of intentionally trying to get darker is not only a beauty crime, it’s viewed as borderline insanity.

9 thoughts on “White is beautiful…”

  1. Yeah, I still cringe and feel a little embarassed every time someone talks about how white I am. A lifetime of paleness being an undesirable thing takes more than a few years of living here to overcome, I think. And I confess that I still tried to catch a few rays while riding my bike around town this summer….:D

  2. So interesting how my pale complexion goes from being “pasty white” to beautiful in a matter of a 14 hour plane trip…and when I get facials I tell them NOT to use the whitening cream, although I probably get it anyways. You won’t see me holding an umbrella when (if?) the sun is shining though. I guess we get these ideals of beauty ingrained into us and it’s very very difficult to change that – I will probably never consider “pale” as beautiful!

  3. Joel your great. Please bribe her agian soon. This was a good post. I actually like the pasty white color of girls. It’s my one oddity in my North American perspective of a cute girl. Tan means you have to deal with tan lines, unless the girls is worried about tan lines then I don’t want to know how they get their body’s tan in certain areas.

  4. Judging people by their looks is an anthropological invariance. I read about a western study on the relation between people in academic positions and the percentage of them with receding hairlines, which is far above the average compared to other professions. Advertising makes heavy use of this new kind of positive racism in chinese as well as in western media.
    I agree on that we are faced with an interesting “cultural difference” concerning skin color and desirability, but execpt the plain colors, are there cultural differences in coping with these desires on either side of the wire?

  5. I’m not sure what you’re asking. I’d say that the things we specifically find attractive (fat or thin, light or dark, etc.) are highly influenced by culture, but not entirely determined by culture. Same goes for people’s behaviour.

  6. It does seem kind of silly, come to think of it, of baking one’s skin in the pursuit of attractiveness–who’s idea of attractiveness? The Land of The Obese? It’s unhealthy, to boot! I say the Chinese has it right on this one. I’m pale-skinned, and, in China, I was fine that way.

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