Mixed-race and Asian Ideal Beauty

by Rena Shoji

In “Filipinos and the Color Complex,” the author Joanne Rondilla (2009) discusses the global skin-lightening market and how those products demonstrate the connection between skin color and beauty. She especially focuses on the Philippines, which has gone through multiple colonization by white people, and racial and skin hierarchy have been constructed.

Rondilla argues that even though the standard of beauty in the Philippines is now inspired more by East Asian countries rather than Caucasians, the definition of beauty is still in accordance with white standards. On the one hand, non-white people tend to claim their uniqueness and originality in terms of their aesthetic values. That is, they have their own beauty standards compared to that of other parts of the world. On the other hand, in the era of globalization, it is practically impossible to ignore the influence of the global capitalism, products and ideas. There are so many products that are sold worldwide, and that implies the producers’ one message, such as, “lighter skin is better”.

Even if the message is the same, the strategies can vary depending on the time and trends. Today, it seems that using images of mixed-race Asians is becoming an effective way of marketing in the Philippines and other Asian countries. Rondilla (2009) analyzes that mixed-race people are a “relatable ideal” (p. 71). That is, they can be identified as Asian, yet they have particular features that consumers might seek or wish to have. Thus, mixed-race people can share sameness and avoid Eurocentric aesthetic values while their features are “better” than others. Their commercial values lay on the Caucasian-like features and relatable aspects as Asians.

This mixed-race popularity can be seen in Japan as well. The term hāfu (half) refers to half-Japanese. In most cases, especially in the beauty industry, hāfu refers to people who are half-Caucasian. For example, some beauty magazines feature articles on “how to look like hāfu with makeup”. It always means how to look like someone who is half-Caucasian.

What is different from the case of the Philippines is that half-Japanese models are not featured in advertisements of skin care products, while they are often in advertisements of makeup products. This could be because of the fact that Japanese people tend to think that they have their own skin color (Ashikari, 2005). This gap can stem from the colonization. The Philippines’ multiple experience of colonization makes the Philippines’ standard of beauty unique, and the so-called “color complex” there has been strongly constructed.

With regard to the preference of lighter skin, Japan and the Philippines shared different historical backgrounds. However, in the era of globalization, it seems that these two countries are  influenced by the white standard, although both claim their “uniqueness” and “Asian-ness”.


Ashikari, M. 2005. Cultivating Japanese Whiteness: The ‘Whitening’ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese Identity. Journal of Material Culture 10:73-91

Rondilla, J, L. 2009. Filipinos and the color complex. Pp. 63-80 in Shades of difference: Why skin color matters, edited by Evelyn Nakano GlennStanford, CA: Stanford University Press


White Normality and the Mass Media

by Marcel Koníček

Before I took my international sociology class, I had never heard about skin lightening and the issues connected to it. I did not even imagine that something like that could even exist. Well, my ignorance is not as surprising considering I am a man coming from ethnically uniform Central European country not really interested in recent trends in cosmetics in other parts of the world. However, after reading about the issue I have quickly realized how widely spread and dangerous this trend is.

For those of you who have not heard about skin lightening, it is a practice done in many parts of the world, where people (mostly women) use cosmetics, containing usually either heavy metals or hormones, that change the skin tone towards the fair end of the skin tone spectrum. Prolonged use can lead to many illnesses and can permanently damage the skin. However, many are willing to pay the price.

Of course, people all over the world are doing many different beauty practices that are not good for their health, so this might be somewhat unsurprising. What is so interesting about it is that it is a phenomenon that connects many dissimilar cultures such as Philippines, African countries, African Americans, and even Japan and Korea. Why would people in all these places want to appear whiter, even though import of the whitening substances is banned in their countries?

Evelyn Nakano Glenn is saying that this is comes from mixing of preexisting preferences for fair skin, relicts of colonial supremacy and modern consumer capitalism. Being whiter gives them better chances at getting a job or being a better match for marriage. I agree with this statement and it is quite eminent, that we actually live in an age of “white normality” where any other skin colour than Caucasian white is considered something undesirable, something that you should and can change about yourself. It is true that for example Europe is full of tanning beds but tanning does not influence your racial identity, which does not have to be true for somebody like African Americans.

The huge rise in the industry of skin whitening and the idea of white normality in the current world is in my opinion tightly connected to two things: globalization of pop culture and rising buying power of the middle class in third world countries. The rise of relatively affluent middle class in countries such as India has created hundreds of millions of consumers of skin lightening products, who previously did not have enough disposable income to buy them. The globalized pop culture is what keeps the trend accelerating. All summer blockbusters that Hollywood sells to us are full of unrealistically attractive white women and the smaller entertainment industries all over the world have already adopted the American ideals of beauty – this is clearly visible in the Korean pop scene, where all the young idols have the same surgically altered face – face that is maybe less Asian and more Caucasian.

English: Nicki Minaj live on Femme Fatale Tour...

English: Nicki Minaj live on Femme Fatale Tour in 2011.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We do not have to go as far for a good example – let’s have look at an African American pop star, Nicki Minaj, and the cover of her new single. Her hair looks very Caucasian and her skin tone actually looks almost whiter than my own skin. I am sure that this is not an accident but a careful choice of background, lighting, cosmetics and photo editing. Everything with the goal to make her look as white as she can without losing too much of her racial background. If even the artist of what some people call “black music” has to look white on the cover of her single to give the right impression, how white must be an Indian woman to be considered a good match for a preferably wealthy husband?

This question is very worrisome and I do not know how to solve this problem or even if it can or should be solved in some reasonable way. However, it shows the ways how media, economic development of third world countries and perception of beauty can influence the behavior of people worldwide.

Selling whiter skin for beauty

by Kohsei Ishimoto

In Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters (2009), Joanne L. Rondilla looks at the different techniques are used in the cosmetics industry. When looking at the Philippines, advertisements focus on ‘whitening’ the skin, because the people in the country tend to have darker skin. On the other hand, when looking at European countries, advertisements look at ‘brightening’ the skin, for there is the idea that people in these countries naturally have light skin.

When looking at these advertisements, it can be seen that to be beautiful, you must have white skin. Rondilla explains that there are many people in the Philippines who buy skin-whitening products to look beautiful, but is being ‘white’ really being beautiful? The main answer to why ‘white’ is thought to be ‘beautiful’ is colonization. To the countries that had been colonized, the European countries had been superior, fixing the image that ‘whites’ are ‘better’.

When reading Rondilla’s chapter, however, it can be seen that there are various ‘types’ of white skin. One is the European beauty that was mentioned earlier, and the other the ‘Asian beauty’. This refers to East Asian countries, such as China and Japan. Filipinos are actually looking at ‘Asian beauty’, possibly because these countries are closer to them. In Japan’s case, the country looks at being ‘white’, trying to achieve the European look. This statement can be said to be wrong however, for recently Japanese people want to be seen as individuals.

When looking at various advertisements, it can be seen that models of different skin tones are used. For advertisements that use ‘white’ women, companies state that they are the ‘result’ of the product. On the other hand, companies that use models of a darker tone state that it does not look ‘right’, telling the consumers to change by buying the product. It is a fact that many purchase skin-whitening products to gain their ‘beauty’, but exactly how close are they to their ideal image? Will consumers ever believe that they are beautiful enough? The answer to this is probably no. The cosmetics industry has control over the consumers, by selling only a small portion of a product, or changing advertising techniques to trick us into believing that our images are not yet satisfactory. When thinking about this, it is interesting to wonder why people use cosmetics in the first place. Can not having any make-up on be considered beautiful? The answer to this can be explained through society; how people see you, and how you want to be seen.

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Tanned skin: the new look?

by Kyungyeon Chung

clarinsToday, open up any international beauty magazine – you will find models that are dominating the colorful pages are not all so pale boasting ‘porcelain’ complexion. Instead, beauty sites and entertainment pages have been filled with new trend – tanning. Just take a look at some gossipy newspaper articles based on curious speculation how Mitt Romney, who must have been so busy at the time, maintained the glowing tanned skin throughout his presidential campaign. Kate Middleton and her sister Pipa Middleton also captured the gossip followers with their bronzed skin complexion. Whether it happens on the stunning Greek beach, or while backpacking in Vietnam, or in a sunbed salon in New York, the result, tanned skin has become the new trendsetting skin complexion.

Among those who can afford and dream of tanned skin, the darker complexion comes with numerous labels: sun-kissed, glowing, bronze, naturally tanned… If you examine, all these words used to describe tan, entail a deep implication that tanned skin is healthy; that it is a product of healthy practice, perhaps swimming in the open ocean, hiking under the sun, or out playing by the beach. No long ago were these associated with toiling in farms under the sun, a mark of laboring, lower class. Yet in 21st century when most of people in industrialized countries, people are usually spending most of their days in their offices, then on cars or public transports, then in shops and their homes, all under the fluorescent lights and hardly under the natural sun rays. And that is exactly why “sun-kissed’ skin is glorified and sought after.

clarins2Popular legend holds that Coco Chanel first initiated this world-wide boom of tanned skin, which she got while vacationing in the Mediterranean in the 1920s. It was a look that signified health and vitality. From then on, tanned skin became associated affluence and luxury of, in short, having enough money to go on holidays and lay under the sun. This was also in such direct contrast with ‘others’ who were unfortunate and had neither time nor money to enjoy such holiday.

However, as mounting medical and scientific studies find the clear link between sun exposure and skin cancer, the trend did not end – instead, it simply turned from ‘natural’ to fake. Today at cosmetics shops, one can find an array of products that promise you evenly tanned skin and beautiful glow. So many different types of products are used to serve different purposed, from tanning lotion to bronzer powder, and fake sprays to imitate tans. You can walk into aesthetic shops and salons in your natural skin color then walk out a few shades darker in a matter of few hours and days of efforts.

The important thing about the logic behind the popularity of tanning, is that, it has fundamentally the same idea as skin brightening. It is the idea that skin complexion is a mark of certain class or socio-economic status, and that can be bought and fixed with money. The idea that beauty queue exists based on skin complexion, and consuming certain products will make you move up along the ladder. So at the end, who ‘wins’ at this game? Think about it – the same company that produces tanning creams and bronzers have different lines for skin brightening and whitening. Whether light skin or tanned skin is the trend of the year, they will never have a problem marketing either product.

Skin Tone and Achievement in Education

by Sten Alvarsson

There is a clear relationship between skin tone and levels of achievement in education. Lighter skin tones achieve higher levels of education and employment on both a personal and family basis (Keith, 2009). Advantages and disadvantages of skin tone relative to a particular group or individual within a society are based on perceived ideas of beauty and status and their associated connotations. The advantages of having lighter skin can be passed down through family networks, as children receive the privileges of the structure they are born into.

Educational advantages of a lighter skin tone relative to others in their environment can be present from an early stage. Teachers can judge students with greater attractiveness to also have greater levels of intelligence (Keith, 2009). Since skin tone often plays an important role in perceived attractiveness, teachers may have higher expectations, give out more encouragement and give higher marks, amongst other preferential treatment, to lighter skinned students resulting in superior academic performance.

Children are highly perceptive to these socialised messages regarding skin tones. When darker skin tones are devalued the affect can be equally as damaging as the extolment of lighter skin tones are advantageous (Elmore, 2009). Adolescents in particular have a heightened sense of self-consciousness in relation to their physical appearance and the socialised messages they receive in the classroom can have a great impact on their academic performance and opportunities for socio-economic mobility later in life.

Research shows that lighter skin tones are often linked to higher socio-economic status to the extent that, “Complexion operates as a form of social capital that can be converted to human capital assets” (Keith, 2009, p. 29). This is supported in research by Joni Hersch which shows that, “On average, being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education” in relation to employment earnings (as cited in Nair, 2010, p. 25). In fact, Keith (2009) highlights a direct relationship between lighter skin tones and increased levels of education. Such research has been questioned by academics like Gullickson (2004) who state that, “Colorism itself might still remain, but structural changes in larger race relations have reduced the advantage it previously gave to lighter skinned individuals” (p. 22). However, Keith (2009) argues that both media images and academic research do not show a decrease in the importance of skin complexion as a marker for achievement.

As has been demonstrated, skin tone is an important marker for achievement in education. Skin tone based social messages, behavioral norms and patterns of thought within the classroom are a powerful force in children’s development. Subsequently, skin tones also play a prominent role in later outcomes in areas such as mate selection, economic opportunities, occupational status and health conditions (Keith, 2009). Therefore, there needs to be a focus on education at a young age working towards combatting skin tone bias in order to lessen its prevalence with each new generation. Ultimately, we are all embodiments of living experiences and an end to skin tone bias would be an important step forward toward an existence without discrimination.


Elmore, T. G. (2009). Colorism in the classroom: An exploration of adolescents’ skin tone, skin tone preferences, perceptions of skin tone stigma and identity. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from UMI Dissertation Publishing. (3395695)

Gullickson, A. (2004). The significance of color declines: A re-analysis of skin tone differentials in post civil rights America. Retrieved from http://www.demog.berkeley.edu/~aarong/PAPERS/gullick_asa2003_skintone.pdf

Keith, V. M. (2009). A colorstruck world: Skin tone, achievement, and self-esteem among African American women. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters (pp. 25-39). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Nair, M. (2010). Social awareness in selected films. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Aveiro, Portugal.

Skin tone, achievement, and self-esteem

by Hanh Le

The chapter explores the linkages between skin tone, socioeconomic achievement and self-esteem among African American women.

Self-esteem is defined as a confidence and satisfaction in oneself, a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. We are living in a color struck world where distinctions based on skin tone have historically intersected with racism, sexism and class to influence how African American and other women of color evaluate themselves. As a dark-skinned woman, the message is often that everything seems to be wrong with her because she is so different. She looks different. Her hair is different. Her facial features are different.

Complexion, along with other Eurocentric physical features – blue, gray or green eyes, straight hair texture, thin lips, and a narrow nose – has been accorded higher status both within and outside the African American community. Conversely, dark complexion and Afrocentric features – broad nose, kinky hair, full lips and brown eyes – has been devalued.

Then are Black women truly proud and comfortable with who they are and what they look like?

For nearly three quarters of a century, researchers have documented many ways that colorism affects the African American community. Since whiteness of skin is a highly esteemed dimension of idealized beauty, women with darker skin and Afrocentric features are at a disadvantage. As a marker of beauty, skin tone is also a form of social capital that grants access to resources of many different types, including marriage to higher status men, higher self-esteem and access to visible occupations.

Regarding the relationship between complexion and achievement, Keith introduced some analyses by NSBA indicating that lighter skin tone is associated with higher socioeconomic status. The author used those data by NSBA to assess whether the effects of skin tone on women’s achievement and self-esteem were conditioned by age or not, and it shows that complexion continued to matter for African American women’s educational attainment, occupational standing, and family income net of family background and other characteristics. However no interaction effects by age were found.

Skin tone and Self – Concept

African American, despite their status as being a racialized minority, has higher or equivalent levels of global self-esteem when compared with whites, except during preschool years and extreme old age.

Because appearance matters more for women, self-esteem is generally lower for females than males. But interestingly, the gender difference is less pronounced or nonexistent among blacks. One explanation by the author is that African American females are more satisfied with their  body image than white females. Anyway, by using data from the original 1979 – 1980 NSBA, it is concluded that skin tone was a more important predictor for women than for men.

According to the Thompson and Keith studies, skin tone interacted with both personal income and attractiveness to influence self-esteem (fig.2.4). But a recent study by Harvey and his associates points to a reversal in the relationship between skin tone, self-concept and racial consonance, from which Keith concluded that black adolescent females rated as light brown and white had slightly lower self-esteem than medium and darker girls (fig.2.5).

A plausible explanation for this reversal is that the racial activism in the 1960s and 1970s instilled pride in African American culture and history, but that the full force of these changes as they pertain to complexion are only just now being reflected in young cohorts.

In conclusion, there is still controversy among scholars whether complexion is still relevant for status achievement and self-esteem or not. It takes long time to research but we still know very little how complexion differences actually come to matter. Are little dark-skinned girls still told to “try to get a light-skinned husband” to compensate for their “devalued, stigmatized features”? Or should they be told that how important, smart and beautiful they are, in order to build up their self-esteem and to stop those burdens which this color struck society is putting on them until their adulthood? To understand fully the impact of colorism on the lives of African American women, we need both survey and ethnographic studies that integrate questions concerning achievement and personal psychology.