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  • Writer's pictureSharon Chau

Snow White skin

This is part of a series I call 'daily espressos', where I write down a stream of thoughts on a random topic!

I was having breakfast with my dad this morning, before we took the MTR (the tube) to work together. It’s become a really nice routine, because he’s usually quite busy and we don’t get that much one-on-one time to chat. I was making breakfast when he commented, ‘You’ve become so tanned!’ I looked at my arms, which were probably the most tanned they’ve ever been because of two consecutive beach days, and said, ‘Yeah, I really like it like this!’ He grimaced and said, ‘You know what they say: 一白遮三醜 (a Chinese quip which roughly means ‘being white/pale can hide many ugly features’). You should definitely have applied more sunscreen!’ I rolled by eyes and said, ‘That’s so problematic, and I like looking healthy and sunkissed. Anyways, I tan really easily but my tans also fade super quick.’ He shrugged and said, ‘Just remember you look more attractive if you’re pale.’

What my dad thinks is symptomatic of a wider and incredibly pernicious problem in Hong Kong/China, and many other countries where looking ‘pale’ is seen as the beauty standard. This has strong historical roots, as white-skin worship used to function as a class distinguisher. Lots of people in China used to and still work in the fields, which meant that their skin would darken from standing out in the sun all day; by contrast, the upper class could live in luxury indoors, away from the sun’s evil UV rays and enjoying pale skin. This meant that the darkness of one’s skin was an easily identifiable physical characteristic separating the classes. Middle-class families which had some resources tried their best to keep daughters indoors so their skin could be smooth and pale and married off to better men. This division between classes by skin tone has persisted, and having lily-white skin now is still the gold standard for beauty. Another reason probably has to do with some form of Stockholm syndrome after being colonised by the white British.

Interestingly, the Chinese language also peddles this idea of pale skin being superior. I’ve already mentioned the phrase my dad said, but another popular phrase 白富美 ‘baifumei’ is used to praise women who have it all, with the word referring to three qualities of being white or fair-skinned (白), rich (富) and beautiful (美). It is telling that being fair-skinned is the first and most important quality, above that of being rich or beautiful. The Chinese words to describe pale or dark skin also have interesting connotations - if someone says your skin is 白晢 or white, you are being complimented; but if someone says your skin is 黝黑 or black/ dark, it usually isn't flattering and it's used to describe labourers. Additionally, the term for whitening, 美白, literally means “beauty (美) whiten (白)”, making it very clear that to whiten is to beautify. Here, the fact that many Chinese words reinforce the idea that white skin = better means that many Chinese try to keep themselves as pale as possible. There is a dizzying array of skincare products that purport to ‘lighten’ your skin, or ‘draw out the darkness’ from your pores, which are probably bullshit but very commercially successful.

All this is why I thought it was bizarre when I first heard my friends in the UK discuss tanning. It was a compliment to look tanned, spray tan was used regularly, and some people even talked of using sunbeds to look darker. One reason is definitely aesthetics, because being pale apparently makes you look sickly, and looking tanned means you look ‘healthy’ and ‘athletic’. I also suspect an alternative use as a class distinguisher worked here - but instead of distinguishing between those who worked in the fields and those who stayed home, it separated those who could afford exotic holidays to soak up the sun and those who could not. Funnily enough, the non-white people were trying to be more white while the white people were trying to be less white! Guess you want what you can’t have.


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