The desire for fair skin or the existence of a billion-dollar industry in skin whitening in Asia isn’t new or striking, and this influences every Asian culture, from East Asian societies, like Chinese; to South Asian societies, like Indian; to everyone else in between: Southeast Asian societies, like Burmese (that’s me!). However, it’s only after I return from the US that I realize how much we collectively obsess over fair skin.
I can understand some of the basis of the preference for fair skin. Dark skin is associated with exposure to the sun, which is associated with manual labor, so it’s considered a marker of low-status. So obviously, fair skin represents its converse in society: being able to shelter oneself from the elements, and simply being able to stay indoors. Therefore, skin color is a status symbol, but it is also an indicator of power. Recall that most of Asia and the Middle East were former European colonies. China was split up by the colonizers, swaths of the Middle East, South Asia, and Burma (my country!) were under British rule; and “Indochina” (that’s the patch of land between Burma and China, so it includes Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) was under French rule. We have lived under European conquest and seen inventions by Europeans, especially in the military front during WWI and WWII, so we associate fair skin with power. Also, since Europeans tend to have fair skin, we associate them with people of higher status, so put another way, cultural imperialism did not cause discrimination based on skin color, but rather amplified existing pre-conceptions. So, when I returned back, I was in for a complete shocker.
The following day after returning home, I decided to check out the local grocery store because I’m out of milk. Then as I pass through the aisles, I come across the cosmetics section and see the usual assortment of moisturizers, shampoos, hair gels, and face whitening lotions. But something else caught my eye as I lulled along: whitening deodorant.
I may have rolled my eyes at the sight of whitening face-wash or lotion yet I can see why people would buy this. Obviously your face is among the first things people look at when they see you so if you’re feeling that your face has blemishes in any way, such as having dark skin, or concealing birth marks or freckles, then you would be inclined to purchase this product. But what about whitening deodorant? Who looks at my armpits?!?