White, fair skin is skin quite a number of Asians long for and actually go after. With the help of makeup and beauty products, a fair complexion is very much achievable for any of us.
When I was younger, I considered alabaster skin – skin as pale as the typical Westerner’s fair face – the epitome of beauty and explained why in a previous blog post. Today my tune has changed: when I do my makeup, some days I go for a look that is lighter than the natural colour of my face while other days, darker.
We all have our reasons for liking and looking a certain way. For some of us stereotypical Asians, having a light complexion is not only a marker of beauty, but also a marker of pride and status.
During the Qin, Han and Tang dynasties dating back to 221 BC, fair skin was idealised and a symbol of wealth and affluence in Chinese culture. Then, farmers toiled under the blistering sun planting rice, wheat and foxtail millet in fields – tanned skin signified a hard life of hard labour. At the same time, court ladies and concubines in the Imperial Courts were fond of applying hard sought layers of white “pearl powder” on their faces. That is, the status quo tipped in favour of the rich and fair back in the day.
My mum thinks traditionally. Growing up in Malaysia, she constantly yelled at me, “Don’t play under the sun! Or else your skin will become all black like charcoal and like the Bangladeshi factory worker! Go inside and read your book!”. I always shrank back into the cool shaded confines of the house and read the newspaper like a well-off, studious, filial Asian kid instead of playing ball under the sun.
Colonial rule is arguably another reason why many Asians favour fair complexions. European colonisation in the mid-1900s set the foundation for various modern bustling Asian cities. Today, it’s no secret considerable parts of Asia live in poverty and Western countries are seen as first world countries. Countless Western faces appear in all sorts of advertisements in Asia: to loosely put it, there is the conception here that those with fairer skin are more “successful”.
Looking young is esteemed in Asian cultures and the whiter one’s skin, the younger one may look. Glossy and dewy makeup often contain “micron mirrors”, giving the illusion of softer skin. It’s makeup that reflects light away from spots and wrinkles and makes a face look smoother, and makeup that is all the rage in Asia coming in endless porcelain shades. However, that does not necessarily mean fair skin actually wrinkles less.
For as long as I can remember, my mum uses facial whitening products religiously each night. I’ll admit it: she looks good for her age sans blemishes on her face. The other day I received a glitter-infused, radiating moisturiser sample in the mail and wondered how it would look on me. I slapped some on my face and looked in the mirror – my face resembled a disco ball.
Hand in hand with looking young, many things fair are often equated with the notions of simplicity and wholesome-ness. Traditionally in Asian cultures and religions, (sexual) purity is sacred. The whiter our face, the more it may resemble a youthful soul, a youthful innocent face of a child with skin barely touched by the sun in this big bad world.
At times our natural skin tone is hereditary. Or not. A study on DNA published last year found most Europeans and Asians had fair skin over 5,000 years ago. Migration can play a part in how light or dark we look over time. Perhaps gene mutation too. But with makeup and beauty products, we can change the way we look in an instant.
These days darker complexion trends are catching on. Not covering up under-eye bags and dark circles has become fashionable in Asia over the last few years. More Asian Australians like tanning these days. I’m not a fan of either.
I’m also not a fan of putting on a fair complexion every day or a face shades lighter than my natural skin tone with the help of makeup. Sometimes a fair complexion makes us look washed out and ill. The other day I was chatting to my friend Felicia, a whiz at making a face look flawless with makeup, and she plainly described such a look, “It looks yuck.”
She also said that given my medium-toned skin, I can pull off a fair-faced look. Another reason I don’t wear this look much is that I don’t want to look like a dainty fair-faced “Asian doll”, don’t want to look like an accessory beside guys I go out with. But occasionally, I do because I want to look cute and approachable – and guys like that. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that there is more to each face than what we see on the surface. As Marilyn Monroe said on her true self:
“Beneath the makeup and behind the smile I am just a girl who wishes for the world.”
As our identities and personal preferences change over time, the way we choose to look and dress may change too. Beauty is subjective, and it’s a fact those in Asia are more open to experimenting with their appearances and makeup today.
While our face may catch someone’s eye, it is ultimately the way we move that catches their heart. Inner beauty speaks the loudest: the way we carry ourselves and how we make others feel often leaves the biggest impact. And that all starts with us feeling comfortable with ourselves and the way we naturally look. As author Gigi Flower mentioned:
“Beauty is about perception, not about make-up. I think the beginning of all beauty is knowing and liking oneself.”
There are days when I feel lazy and can’t be bothered to put on make-up, and I don’t. It’s these days when my under-eye circles and the red, flaky skin patches on my cheeks are on show for the whole world to see, my face far from luminous. It’s these days I look like a broken doll. Or Freddy Krueger. It’s these days I tell myself it’s okay, it’s okay to just be me…even as I hear my mum telling me to walk under the shade when I leave the house bare-faced, sun shining overhead.
Just like how age is just a number, the colour of our skin is just a colour.
Do you wear makeup and/or like the colour of your skin?