Why do people prefer whiter skin?

By Ye Tiantian

I chose this topic because I myself am a part of the skin whitening market, as I have been consuming skin lightening products since I don’t even remember when. But for all that time, I never asked myself the question of why do I want to whiten my skin? Well, go to any drug store or large mall and ask those purchasing the skin whitening products this question, I am pretty sure that most, if not all, of them will tell you, because they want to be beautiful. But why is white beautiful? That’s the point.

Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s research introduced the skin whitening markets in different regions and among different consuming groups. Glenn used the word “colorism” to explain the growing and even illegal skin whitening markets in African nations which is related to colonialism and the so-called “white privilege”. I don’t know much about the skin whitening market of Africa, African America, India, Southeast Asia or Latin America. Actually, I didn’t even know that there exist such huge skin whitening markets outside Asia until I had read Glenn’s research, since I had always assumed that it is the traditional Asian aesthetic that lead to the practice of using those products. But I do know the whitening market of East Asia or more specifically China.

It is true that I cannot represent all of the consumers in the skin whitening market, but I am pretty sure that I and most of the people I know buying those products are not trying to make ourselves look like white people. We don’t want to be white, we want to be what in Chinese we called “白里透红”, white with rosy touches, like the skin of a newborn baby—an Asian baby, not necessarily a white baby.

As we have discussed before, race is a socially constructed category. It is not like only white people have the biological gene to have white skin. Compare the skin color of a newborn Asian baby with a white person, they are not that different. I cannot tell you for sure that it has nothing to do with white privilege that people like me buy skin whitening products. But at least, I believe this is not the whole story behind the growing skin whitening market in at least China.

If it is all about the white privilege, how can we explain that the practice of skin whitening in China could date back to Qin Dynasty (221-206BC)? Women in China at that time already learnt to make their face white using lead powders, changing their diets and consuming certain kinds of herbals. If you know a little bit about Chinese history, you will know that China used to be one of the most powerful nations of the world; it was even more powerful than Western European nations. If it was only about white supremacy, as it was believed for the African market, it won’t make any sense because there was no such thing as white supremacy in ancient China.

There is one explanation which I highly doubt, but might be true, that the first ruling class of China as a nation, though not united, is white Indo-Europeans. Thus, white skin is linked with the ruling class. But this cannot be entirely proved and for most time of the Chinese history, the rulers were not white people.

My guess is that Chinese want to be white because whiter skin (not pure white skin like white people) is linked with higher social classes inside the Chinese society. From the Qin dynasty, there is this a social ranking in which scholars and officers were always on the top of the social class. What’s the characteristic of scholars or officers? They work indoors, not outdoors. Thus, they are not exposed to sunshine as other farmers, workers, merchants are, and as a result they must have skin more like that  of newborn babies. We even have a word for it in Chinese, “白面书生”. Thus, in the traditional stereotype of Chinese society, whiter skin is linked with higher social class.

This is even true for contemporary Chinese society. We may be educated to treat all kinds of jobs equally and be taught that there is no such thing as better jobs and worse jobs. But the unconscious bias of our mind still to some extent controls our behaviors. And from my observation, there must be such bias and sometimes even conscious ones.

Sometimes, this kind of discrimination is even institutionalized. In the Chinese hukou system, people possessing a rural hukou receive a lower standard of social welfare compared with people with an urban hukou. Those people with rural hukou are normally those working as agriculture farmers or construction workers and other labor intensive jobs. People working in the offices normally have higher social status compared with people working outdoors in construction sites or agricultural fields. A typical image of a successful person working a decent job would be like this, while “migrant workers” or farmers are usually associated with this kind of image and are usually considered as poor, not well-educated and with bad manners.

So my argument is that the preference of white skin may be linked with power and privilege, but it doesn’t need to be privilege of other races and ethnic groups. While white privilege might be an explanation for the skin whitening market in some parts of the world, some times it could because of the privilege of social classes inside the same race and ethnic group. Being whiter doesn’t need to be imitating white people.


5 thoughts on “Why do people prefer whiter skin?

  1. Pingback: Perchè i cinesi preferiscono la "pelle bianca"? | Moshi Moshi Netizen!

  2. I really hope people don’t change their skin colour around the world just because some Europeans or Westerners have white skin. If they do, I’d personally tell you all that you are backwards, retarded idiots who fail to appreciate the gifts that God gave you. You are literally an idiot if you think white skin makes people more attractive. People of ‘colour’, whatever that means, are attracted to other people of colour, you never have to be ashamed of who you are, ever. Period. It absolutely disgusts me that black, yellow or brown people would try to become something that they are not, you should stop following others and find out more about who you are, and be grateful for it. White people don’t stand around talking about how they should look like Asians or black Africans. They just live and breath who they were born to be. And so should everyone else. In-fact most white people want to be tanned, and most white people spend their whole lives getting skin cancers because their own skin colour wasn’t made for strong sun. That’s the reality of having white skin. The whole world is crazy, the people have gone insane because they forgot who they were, and instead tried to be someone who they are not.

    • Thanks for the comment. Mass delusion or mass insanity doesn’t really explain this widespread phenomenon. It might be more useful to think about the incentives people get for looking a certain way. Maybe these are rational actors who are responding to the inequality they see around them. In many countries around the world, we see a clear pattern: the lighter the skin, the higher the status. If you want to be seen as looking “professional” or attractive, you might need to look a certain way. Criticizing people who live in such social systems doesn’t change the systems they’re in.

    • I’m white as fuck and i had to study abroad in Japan ….all my classmates were japanese and they kept telling me how my red hair was beautiful and my skn color was so pale.IDK but when i said to them that i prrefer tanned skin the looked at me like i said something wrong. Personally i think they should be THEY ! What is this obssesion with whiter skin or hair color???

  3. Thank you for your perspective! I’m Filipino American, and “lighter skin” is a culturally coveted concept there too in the Philippines. I like in your post you addressed that in approach to beauty products, the “whiteness” that Asian communities covet may have nothing to do with White western beauty. It just is something that is within the culture that resembles prestige and status. Appreciate your view, it adds to my understanding of this context.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s