How I Came To See ‘Whiteness’ As Just Ordinarily Beautiful

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.

People in East Asia are known to use every means to shield themselves from the sun so as to not get tanned while outdoors. Photo by Replacing Ink.

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.

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216 thoughts on “How I Came To See ‘Whiteness’ As Just Ordinarily Beautiful

  1. The photos turned out really nicely with strong colours!

    When I walk into the beauty stores stocking Japanese products or Korean products, the majority of the packaging uses Caucasian models. It’s also in the anime as well, look at Ichigo from Bleach.

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  2. You are beautiful! What a thoughtful wonderful post–breaking through an old barrier and expressing it so well. My new daughter-in-law is Asian and I am dreaming of half-Asian grandbabies some day…

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  3. I find this very interesting. A Caucasian myself, I actually wanted dark skin when I was younger. I still think it is very pretty—it has a quality of richness to it that light skin lacks. All the different ethnicities have a special type of beauty, I think, but like you say, nothing shines like inner beauty.

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  4. There’s an old saying: Beauty is as beauty does. But although we admire inner beauty, most of us prefer that which we can immediately see in front of us. White people like to tan and look brown, culy haired people admire those with wavy or straight hair, the latter get their hair permed. No one is satisfied with who they are or what they have. That’s human nature.

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  5. Beautiful post and one that is sadly becoming increasingly relevant. I watched a documentary that showed Asian women getting surgery on their eyes to make them look “more white”. I look around at all the “role models” for the non-white communities, but by and large they’re women (and it is usually non-white women that get demonised the most for physical “beauty”) that look white or have “white” features. Think of Nikki Manaj, Beyonce, Rihanna. And even then, when they’re photo-edited, they’re given even whiter skin!

    Thank you for this brilliant post, very articulate and well written. A thousand kudos from me.

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    • I totally agree with you that quite a number of “role models” in predominantly non-white communities look white. It’s sad that society doesn’t appreciate natural beauty, the natural colours of our skin. And you’re definitely right on the money in saying that Asian woman are turning to surgery and other means to look white. Every time I walk down the streets of any developed East Asian country while there on vacation, I see countless of Asian women sporting dyed blonde hair. I personally think this is a very strange look.

      Thank you for the nice words!

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  6. I love this. A very fair-skinned friend of mine traveled to Thailand a couple years ago. When she cam back to the US, she reported that the people of Thailand revered her whiteness. All the ads and billboards featured white people.
    In Thailand, the ads feature white people?! What? I felt sad about that. The people of Thailand considered themselves an ugly people, and that made me sad. Because they’re not. They’re beautiful. We’re all beautiful.

    So I am happy to read that you no longer think of yourself as less attractive than white people.

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    • It is extremely common in Asia for ads to feature white people all the time. And this just reiterates to people in East Asia how dark skin is not ‘beautiful’. I would love to see an ad in this region one day where white people tell people here how beautiful they all are regardless of skin colour (perhaps alongside selling some facial moisturiser that’ll make one eternally beautiful).

      At the end of the day, we are all the same. we are all beautiful 🙂

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    • I’ve heard some Filippino women say they don’t like Filippino men because they are ‘ugly’ so they want to go for white guys. I can’t help but to wonder…(don’t want to judge either) whether some Asian women marry white guys because of their personality or simply because they’re white.

      I think that’s ridiculous.

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  7. It’s amusing how your mum tells you to stay out of the sun, while mine will practically push me out the door whenever the sun peaks out in order to get a tan. Of course, living in Norway, we don’t see the sun /that/ often 😉
    But while being pale is considered beautiful amongst many Asians, being tanned is the beauty idol here in Norway where we are naturally fair-skinned and blue-eyed.

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    • Your mum is hilarious, pushing you out of the house like that! It’s good to get out in the sun for some exercise and natural Vitamin D though 😉

      I’ve heard that dark skin is considered as what you call it ‘the beauty idol’ for many Caucasians. It’s definitely very interesting to me. I don’t know why, but perhaps opposites attract?

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      • I’m sure a little sunlight is good for you (especially since we have none during winter up here), but I don’t really like it. We’re supposed to bake ourselves in the sun, but it’s just too hot for me. I’m happy as long as I get to hide out in the shade.
        But you’re right, opposites do attract, and whatever is new and exotic becomes the ideal

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m so glad that you wrote this article. Unfortunately the South Asian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) also has an annoying obsession with white skin. Brides get makeup done with white powder, so much so that their face is a different color than their hands. There are products that are sold under the guise that they can change the color of your complexion (Fair and Lovely, anyone?). When I used to visit family back home I was told numerous times not to drink Chai (black tea with milk) because it would cause my “skin to get dark.” In my head I was always saying, “no it won’t, idiot. And even if it does, I DON’T CARE!” I think a lot of the obsession has to do with some of the historic Anglo colonization.

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    • Yes, I agree with you. I can’t see how Chai can cause anyone’s skin to get dark. It’s just black tea mixed with milk. It’s sort of akin to saying ‘Don’t drink tea’ (because tea is black, milk is fine as it’s white), which is really laughable in Asian cultures as tea is drunk practically on a daily basis. Hypocritical.

      Perhaps this whiteness obsession does have something to do with Anglo colonisation of the region. Anglo colonisation has in some ways made some Asian countries more progressive and developed, so the Anglo colonisers are often seen as the ‘saviours’ of these countries from suffering decades ago. A very possible and valid reason why Asians tend to look towards ‘white’ as all-mighty and beautiful.

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  9. I’ve noticed Asian who live in Las Vegas, Nevada always carrying something to stay white. And they run in and out of their cars quickly so they won’t get tanned. I’ve always thought it strange, now I understand why they do it. I thought it had something to do with getting wrinkles.

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    • Interesting to hear. People of Asian descent running from the sun in Nevada. Sounds like they do want pale skin and so avoid the sun…but no reason why it can’t be something to do with getting wrinkles either.

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  10. This was especially interesting to me because I am an Asian-American who has never understood the Eastern obsession with being white. Even my own mother has made comments like “White people are really the most beautiful, aren’t they?” And my Caucasian boyfriend who is currently residing in China is typically on the receiving end of much adoring attention because of his pale skin. It’s time Asian cultures realized that beauty is not, and should never be, defined by skin color.

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    • Yes, in this modern age where there are so many new ideas and lifestyles floating around, it’s a wonder why many Asians who are brought up with Asian cultures stick by the ideal that white is beautiful. It doesn’t hurt to simply acknowledge that dark skin can be beautiful – which it is – and admit that you simply like looking white (personal preferance of how you want to look). As you described, many Asians still make judgements based on looks.

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  11. Thanks for sharing this. And then, in the US, practically everyone wants to be darker and tanning is something many people do in the summer!

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  12. Very interesting post! This subject has been on my mind for a few years now. Growing up in the 80’s we would use baby oil to tan on the tin roof of the barn. Now I tan because it makes my arthritis feel better when it’s damp or -20F outside. And not gonna lie, I also feel I look better with brown fat vs. pale fat 🙂
    You are right about beauty coming from within, too. Confidence (not cockiness) is very attractive, as is a beautiful soul. 🙂

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    • Great to hear that you tan out of necessity, for health purposes! Do use sunscreen though. I agree that confidence is attractive. And so is shyness. And awkwardness. You get the picture. We are all beautiful souls 😀

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  13. I love this post! I’m from Indonesia and I’m always perplexed at how closely defined beauty is with being white. The irony is, most people in Indonesia are not born white. In Papua, where I come from we are all black, and I just thought that it’s ironic that according to that standard, none of the people from my tribe are beautiful according to this standard.

    How sad is it to find out that even in your own home you can never be categorized as beautiful

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    • Thanks, Gia. I am sure all of you in Papua are beautiful no matter the colour of your skin. It is ironic. And it is sad when those closest to you don’t see you as beautiful. I suppose we can take heart knowing that deep down in our own hearts, that we’re all different and we’re all beautiful.

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  14. Dearest Mabel, you are simply lovely; enjoyed your post. As a girl I saw Asian needlework and fell in love. It planted a seed in me that to this day has never died. I wanted to know such talented women. I see Asian people as so talented, disciplined, so very kind , well mannered to their elders and friends. Your skin color never played a part in my observations . I hope one day to travel East but then maybe I will see you here.

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  15. White people want to get darker and Dark people want to get whiter.the grass is always greener on the other side. In Iran(my country) there are so many tanning products cause girls want to make their white skin into a bronze color.
    I’ve been living in Malaysia for 4 years and the whitening products were everywhere.it’s funny how people think of themselves. it’s pure stupidity to go against your skin color and try to change it.

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    • “the grass is always greener on the other side” I like that analogy a lot, thank you for bringing that up. No matter how much whitening skin products we use, they won’t stay on our skin forever, and I doubt that once we stop using it, we will have fair skin forever. At the end of the day, beauty is being confident in our own skin and we should embrace our features.

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  16. I currently live in South Korea and I often have people comment on how white I am. My skin is very fair naturally (Irish roots) and because I work inside, I’ve paled out even more. It makes me uncomfortable that women comment on my pallor, especially because back in the United States my skin tone is considered undesirable.

    I once found whitening deodorant in the supermarket. I’m happy for your considered acceptance of skin color.

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    • Thanks for sharing, Coleen. It must be annoying for you when people put you down for being fair. Sometimes we can’t help the way we are and the way we look – we are born with certain features, everyone is and we should all come to realise that.

      Whitening deodorant. Now that is a very interesting everyday hygiene product. I hear it’s very popular in India.

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      • It wasn’t so much putting me down for being fair, as being awed by the sheer whiteness and wondering whether I used whitening creams. In Korea (as in India and other parts of Asia), fair skin is prized and considered a mark of wealth.

        It was a funny thing, though. I’m looking forward to the same kind of thing in China!

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  17. My wife and I love to tan. We moved to Canada a few years back from Dubai and she complains all the time about how white and transparent her skin has become in the past 3 years. It doesnt matter how much time we spent under the sun this summer, the tan seems to fade fast 😦

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  18. It’s so great to realize that it’s truly what is on the inside and not just our packaging, that determines beauty. Unfortunately most of the world is still waiting to catch up and truly grasp this. $$ feeds our insecurities and perpetuates these ideas. Big business gains by exploiting this too…sadly.

    Good for you for uncovering the truth!

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    • Definitely agree that businesses are out there exploiting people who want to look white. There are countless of whitening products on the market, so many that it’s quite funny – at the end of the day they are mass-manufactured chemicals in bottles, and I honestly reckon some of them are not meant to be slathered all over our skin as they show in advertisements.

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  19. Wow, this is great. It’s really opened my eyes to the different perspectives of beauty that exist out in the world. I’ve lived in the U.S. all my live (17 years) and the standard of beauty since I can remember has been to be as tan as you can possibly be. Unfortunately for me, growing up with very fair skin, blue eyes and red hair, I always felt jealous of girls with darker complexions. It’s physically impossible for me to tan. I just turn tomato red! Eventually, I learned to embrace who I was and to be proud of my whiteness. It saddens me to think that anyone would feel ashamed of their skin color. However, in a world filled with prejudice, people feel that way every day. In my opinion, beauty is what you make of it. Being beautiful on the inside is more important than your physical appearance.

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    • Glad you liked this post. I’m also happy to hear that you’ve learned to be proud of whiteness, and more importantly who you are! And I really like it when you say ‘beauty is what you make of it’ – we are definitely all beautiful in our own unique way no matter what others say!

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  20. You got it there. The perception of beauty has become so superficial and unfortunately, the media, especially advertisements, further promotes this. But when people think through more in the way they relate to people, then I think the majority still are able to recognize that it’s the inner beauty that really counts and what shines through in the end. 🙂

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  21. This is the most interesting post I’ve read in my 3 months on WP. It opened up the doors to a belief I never knew existed in the Asian culture. I can relate to a certain extent growing up in an African American community and era where dark skin was frowned upon. The times have changed since then. I should post about it as well.

    And it’s good to know I will never need to tan 😉
    Great post and congratulations!

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  22. And of course here in the U.S. all the white girls are flocking to tanning beds, getting skin cancer, and hoping and praying to not be pale. Nobody is ever happy with how they look.

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  23. Wow, you just wrote what was in my head for the longest time. There is a saying that the grass is always greener on the other side…my white friends love to be tan because they see themselves as too pale and reckons that tan is more exotic. Black/brown/tan is just as beautiful as white and vice versa.

    Great post!

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  24. I cannot agree more, the fair complexion credo rules the Asian world not only east Asia but South Asia as well, I personally hate this concept “white is beautiful”. What I do to discourage this among Asian women and Asian market is that I never purchase any whitening products! This is my way of saying that beauty is not skin deep. Great post, thanks for bringing this up.

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  25. This is a great post. So open and honest. Even though growing up in the south during the late 60’s and 70 ‘s was difficult we never though ourselves to be less beautiful than anyone else, with all the Miss America’s show’s and everyone on T.V. being white I can truly say that I was not affected by it at all nor any of my friends as far as I could tell. We recognized the beauty that’s within and the beauty that not our own. I’m so happy to know that you have come to understand that every race of people is beautiful, no one can set the standard for beauty if they are not the creator of it. I love all things beautiful and you my dear are one of them.

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    • Thank you for the nice words! It’s sad that today many of us are often influenced by what we see on TV and all the advertisements around us that depict ‘white is beautiful’. It definitely takes lots of self-confidence to ignore all these messages in the mainstream media and be happy with who you are. I’ve stopped watching TV (apart from news) and tv series for the past year and a half, and have learned to see many things differently 🙂

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  26. “…Caucasians simply looked different feature-wise. Exotic almost. And exotic is always attractive and eye-catching.”

    Sad, but true. In the United States, at least in my experience, Asian features tend to be considered exotic, attractive, and eye-catching. The same goes for Africans, South Americans, and even Native Americans.

    Add to the ethnic features the fact that many Americans revere a tanned skin tone, it just goes to show how different the notion of beauty is between cultures these days (not to mention just how shallow our world has become).

    Which reminds me: when did voluptuous and curvaceous come to mean “fat?” Whatever happened to when a “plump” woman was considered beautiful, healthy, and enticing?

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    • Interesting to hear Asian features are regarded as exotic in the States. I suppose many there grew up in Caucasian dominated small towns and perhaps have not had the opportunity to meet people from other cultures often.

      Very, very sad to hear people describe voluptous as fat and obese these days. Maybe it has something to do with the rise of beauty pagents and the figures we see in the media.

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  27. Have you heard about the “Fair and Lovely” cream made in India? Once an NGO started a campaign against this cream. The tagline was “I am not fair, but I am lovely.” 🙂

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  28. I am a “white” girl from California. In 2009, I moved to Taiwan, and I was surprised by the number of stares I got–I wasn’t used to sticking out–and to see so many people with umbrellas walking around. In the States, people want the exact opposite–they want to be tan!!! I lived in Taiwan for two years and then moved to Hong Kong. The same was true there. I also had the opportunity to talk with a number of locals in both places and to observe the filial piety that you talk about…

    It’s funny, I’ve never thought of Asians’ preference for whiteness as being the same as (some) Westerners’ preference to be tan. But I guess they are very similar, except that it much healthier for your skin to be white than tan! But I’m glad you see that beauty comes from the inside, not the outside. There are a lot more important things than the color of your skin.

    I like your blog! Am following 🙂

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    • In Asia, going to the beach means carrying umbrellas all the time and hiding from the sun, and I totally know what you mean when you say you see people with umbrellas everywhere! And thank you for the follow 😀

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  29. I’m no writer but I want to comment you for such a beautiful diction you got there–at that age. A diction that beautifully cascades like a serene waterfall in a forest.

    Thanks for the hindsight! You made me appreciate my color all the more. I’m from the Phillippines where “whiteness” is generally glorified–beauty wise. Nevertheless, as long as there are “proactive’ people like you who can constructively share “alternative opinions” to challenge the stereotype, beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder.

    (Oh, I am so handsome! 😉 )

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  30. Really thoughtful post! It’s so silly, I live in Dublin, Ireland and women here will do anything and everything to become brown and tanned. I’ve also had Chinese friends who will do anything to stay pale and white. It’s just ridiculous, everyone wants to be something they are not. There is physical beauty is pale skinned Europeans and also in the beautiful dark skin of Africa and South East Asia 🙂

    And of course, everyone is capable of great inner beauty 🙂

    Rohan.

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    • Seems like many people of Asian descent around the world yearn to be fair. Interesting it’s the same case in Dublin as well. “everyone is capable of great inner beauty” Spot on. We all have unique physical features and individual strengths and talents, we really are all beautiful in our own ways 🙂

      Like

  31. I agree that paleness is fetishised amongst many Asians, but resulting uneven pigmentation could also be a reason to stay out of the sun. For some of us, tans fade but acquired moles/freckles/sun spots are forever.

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    • You are so right. Uneven pigmentation and skin tone is another thing altogether, and sometimes it’s due to medical reasons as well that we have to stay out of the sun. Very important point to keep in mind.

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  32. funny cos over here us white people consider Asian ladies very attractive.. and the olive skinned Mediterranean ladies also. The “white look” or “english rose” no doubt is a colonial hangover the needs to be exorcized. Buuuutt its more everyone wants to be something different than what they are isnt it..? or most people anyway.
    thanks.

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  33. Thanks for this thoughtful and honest piece of writing. You should know that the prejudice about whiteness is not restricted to East Asia. I’ve lived in the US all my life, and have spoken with people who come here from all over the world, or whose families immigrated here within a generation or three. Based on this anecdotal experience, I can tell you that, at least until recently, it was not uncommon for grandmothers and aunts in North America, in Latin America, in southern Europe, in the former Soviet Union, or in India to associate lighter skin with beauty and privilege and to warn young women to shade themselves from the sun for this reason. My impression is that in many of these places this prejudice is far less common today than it was thirty or sixty years ago. It may even be reversing: I’ve met many Americans who say that darker skin is more beautiful.

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    • Thank you for sharing. It is interesting to hear you’ve met Americans who say that darker skin is beautiful. The older generation can indeed be adamant about which skin colour is deemed “beautiful”. I suppose we all have our own opinions, experiences and personalities that influence how we see the world.

      At the end of the day, we all have our own unique physical features. We’re all different, so why not embrace the fact that we’re all beautiful in our own ways.

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  34. How odd that different cultures can be at polar opposites on some levels. Here in the U.S. a tanned individual is considered healthy and attractive. People even visit tanning booths to maintain their tan through the winter. However in the south( I live in Georgia) during the 19th century and before white skin was a sign of wealth for the same reasons you explained in Cambodia.

    Like

    • It’s so interesting how we view beauty. It must cost quite a bit to tan in tanning booths consistently, for instance throughout winter if you want to maintain a tanned look. Same goes for tanning products on the shelves…but I don’t know if they are good or harmful to the skin. You never know. The great lengths we go to to look “beautiful” when we in fact already beautiful with what we’re born with.

      Like

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