I used to be one of those people who honestly thought and held the perception that white-skinned Caucasians were the ultimate epitome of beauty.
That is, when I was living in South East Asia, I genuinely regarded Caucasians and people with fair skin and blue eyes as physically attractive, thinking “whiteness” was what you needed in order to be beautiful inside out.
Whenever it was blazingly hot and sunny outside in Malaysia or Singapore and I wanted to go out, my mum would incessantly nag at me to stay in the shade or else I would “get all black” and ugly. I always naively obliged thinking she was Mrs. Know It All.
I would also always gawk in admiration at Caucasians who strolled around here as the thought “oh wow, they are so beautiful” whirled around in my head.
I’m definitely not the only one who (used to) thinks this way. Over the past century and up until today, there is a craze amongst people of Asian ethnicity – Chinese, Koreans, Japanese etc. – living in East Asia to look as white or fair-skinned as possible. Whitening beauty products are all the rage here, abundantly stocked on supermarket shelves and advertised more than a fair bit in newspapers.
Quite a number of people in this region hold the superficial idea that being beautiful is equated to “looking as white as possible”. And this shallow trend in Asia shows no sign of slowing down.
Some reasons behind such a prolific phenomenon in East Asia struck me after a couple of years living in Melbourne. The so-called rigid aspects of Asian culture can be partially to blame (don’t get me wrong, I am very proud of my heritage).
Asians in general are taught to abide by traditions and exercise filial piety, and this in turn simply reinstates the long-held belief in every generation that fair skin is the quintessence of beauty.
Whiteness has always been a salient albeit a slightly evolving standard in Chinese history. During the Han period in China, women of court boasted unearthly white Moon-like faces. Later in the Tang dynasty, reddish-white faces were a common sight among the women of this era. Empress Wu Zetian passed down her royal skin whitening recipes to her daughter Princess Taiping who never questioned such techniques and emphatically sought to preserve them.
And today alabaster white skin tones are immensely popular in Asia for arguably this reason.
Don’t we all feel that inkling of ‘Asian shame’ if we are rebellious towards our parents or get a wigging from them? I would always fret over tan lines that materialised on my arms and legs after a school hiking excursion under the sun in Singapore and wondered what my parents would say.
As it has been for centuries in Asian cultures, we aren’t inclined to disrespect history. We aren’t exactly told to question but encouraged to adhere by traditional values and beliefs – think “study hard, get good grades” – and essentially shut up and listen most of the time. So the notion ‘whiteness equals beauty’ permeates today due to East Asians’ unconscious innate in-bred instincts to listen to repetitive advice on this subject and fervently pass these messages down to the next generation.
The preference and tendency to socialise with other Asians who share similar perspectives is also ostensibly another reason behind this whiteness craze. Bruce McConachie writes that sociologist Raymond Williams’ idea of “structures of feeling” designates the emotional bonding below the conscious level due to the collective experiences by a particular group. That is, we frequently gravitate towards and feel a sense of connection with those who possesses similar experiences as us.
While living in East Asia, most of my friends were of Asian background and we took much enjoyment in Asian-activities such as celebrating the Lunar New Year and yapping about traditional superstition.
And naturally we agreed that ‘dark skin’ is ugly given that it’s often associated with being ‘poor’ or dark skinned peasants planting rice in paddy fields under the scorching sun, and ‘whiteness’ pretty as it tends to be equated with high economic statuses or Caucasians decked out in spiffy business attire working in comfortable air-conditioned office buildings. Just like in the movies.
In essence, the more us Asians who had similar mindsets stuck together, the more the mentality ‘white is beautiful’ stuck in our heads – no one challenged this idea.
This frame of mind can also be said to persist today due to the presence of relatively few gwei los or gwei muis in Asia. I gawked whenever I spied one of them in Singapore. Thinking back, I stared because compared to most of the other people around me that were of Asian descent, Caucasians simply looked different feature-wise. Exotic almost. And exotic is always attractive and eye-catching.
When I moved to Melbourne, I was immediately riveted by how everyone is constantly encouraged to be creative, to inquisitively think outside of the box. Individual opinion is highly valued in the Western world. During class discussions, I was always asked to speak my opinion on the topic thrown up in the air. Once my class was asked to deliberate the stereotypes of whites and non-whites and that got me thinking:
Is skin colour really justified as the benchmark for beauty? A beautiful personality?
No. As I’ve mentioned, at the end of the day, just as age is just a number, skin colour is just a colour.
I began thinking even more broadly as I met people from different backgrounds with different beliefs. Although I did meet people who did think “white was beautiful” at school, most were very proactive about sharing alternative opinions.
As such, I eventually developed a penchant for looking at both sides of the coin and not confining myself to thinking about one perspective in any given situation.
And when I walk out of my Melbourne flat, I see Caucasian after Caucasian person on the streets – alongside speckles of people of Asian ethnicity. A very common, bland sight that I’ve gotten used to seeing on an ordinary day.
So much so that I’ve come to realise “whiteness” and “non-whiteness” are both merely physical features.
What’s more interesting is having a spontaneous conversation with a white or non-white person, and seeing the nice things that they do. Which are never the same and always one-of-a-kind.
And that’s where real beauty emanates from.