Colorism in Chinese Beauty Standards

By Misha Lee

Christin hume 0mof fe0w0a unsplash

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Situation: Growing up in a Chinese-American community in the Midwest, I witnessed the desire and pursuit for fair skin among Chinese women. I, however, was born with naturally darker skin, and, to my parents’ displeasure, I would often be told by strangers that I looked mixed/biracial. Having experienced prejudices from friends and family, I will be giving a speech to my Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric class to inform my classmates of how colorism is embedded in Chinese beauty standards as well as its detrimental effects on Chinese women. I argue that colorism should be put to an end.

Speech: Good afternoon everyone! It’s been such a pleasure to be in class with all of you and I can’t believe the semester is about to end! Our freshmen year has truly been unique in many ways, presenting a series of unexpected challenges on top of being college students for the first time. For many of us, we’ve left our family and friends to come to Notre Dame and arrived unsure of what to expect. Yet, over the past few months, we have each been able to find our new best friends and successfully adapt to our new shared home, Notre Dame.

During the pandemic, we’ve all been wearing masks to protect ourselves and others. However, this often makes it difficult to tell each other apart from one another, as most of our unique facial features have been covered up. This creation of uniformity in appearance relates to the topic that I will be discussing today. As you all have probably realized by now, I’m Asian-American, more specifically Chinese-American. Both of my parents moved to the US from China and therefore Chinese culture has always been an important part of my life. Today, I would like to talk a little bit about colorism and how it’s embedded in Chinese beauty standards. I understand that most of you probably don’t really know what colorism is exactly, and how it could relate to beauty standards, which is why I’d like to inform you all about its presence in China as well as some of its detrimental effects.

What is Colorism and Where did it Come From?

Before I go into why colorism is a bad thing, I would first like to define what colorism is and how it originated in China. Colorism is the “preference for lighter over darker skin color,” which often leads to discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone (Yu). The preference for fair skin in China is rooted in history and can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.). At the time, skin tone became a representation of status due to the fact that wealthier families did not have to work laboriously in the sun. Therefore, those who came from families of wealth often had lighter skin. This led to many classic Chinese poems to describe the skin of beautiful women as looking like “snow, ice, or jade to indicate the qualities of transparency, delicacy, smoothness, and whiteness” (Zhang). In fact, this beauty standard has been referenced in several ancient Chinese proverbs, one of the most popular being, “A white face covers a hundred ugly things.” In other words, having white skin can cover up any imperfections in your appearance. I commonly heard this proverb growing up which caused me to become more sensitive about my naturally darker skin. Only later did I accept my skin tone as a trait that I shouldn’t try to change. However, many Chinese women feel pressured to find ways to make their skin whiter in order to be deemed beautiful. This is due to the fact that from a young age, parents will often tell their daughters to stay out of the sun so they “don’t get too dark.” Therefore, the fair skin beauty standard has become well-internalized by many Chinese women and girls.

The Dangerous Pursuit for Fair Skin

Now that you have a little bit of background on how colorism originated in China, I will be discussing some of the unhealthy methods that Chinese women use to try to lighten their skin. In many Asian countries, especially in China, the skin whitening industry is huge, as a World Health Organization study found that “almost 40 percent of women polled in countries such as China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea said they used whitening products regularly” (Lin). The most common whitening products are skin whitening creams notoriously known for being harmful to the skin and even dangerous to a person’s health. For example, in 2002, there was a huge toxic cream outbreak in Hong Kong where thousands of people purchased and used a skin whitening cream later found to have mercury levels between 9,000 and 65,000 times the recommended dose. Even more terrifying is the fact that when questioned about the high levels of mercury in the cream, a Chinese supplier simply responded, “What’s wrong with a little mercury in the cream, as long as it can make ladies beautiful” (Bray). According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages.” The desire for fair skin has led thousands of Chinese women to risk their lives simply to fit into a beauty standard. The pressure to have fair skin that Chinese women experience is simply unnecessary and excessive.

I remember once when I was fourteen, I overheard one of my friend’s parents talking to my mom, telling her that it was a shame that I had dark skin. She said that if I had lighter skin, I would be prettier. I felt confused by her comment and subsequently began to notice how light the skin of the celebrities on the Chinese TV shows I enjoyed watching was compared to mine. Afterwards, I asked my mom if she could buy me some skin-whitening face masks from China, which I stopped using after a few times due to the fact that they made my face look sickly and unnatural. This should not be a reality that Chinese girls have to face on a day to day basis. Unfortunately, the skin whitening industry has only gotten more and more creative in recent years with regards to the products they sell.

One skin whitening product that has been popular amongst Chinese celebrities is the “meibaiwan,” a supposedly magical pill that can make your skin white. One celebrity who has admitted to trying these pills is Shen Mengchen, a Chinese actress, television host, singer and model. Shen Mengchen is often made fun of for having naturally darker skin, especially after a picture of her without makeup was leaked on the internet a few years ago. She has always been sensitive about her skin tone, and this incident only reinforced her feelings of shame.

In an interview with Barbie Hsu, a Taiwanese actress, singer, and television host known as “The Beauty Queen” for her beauty and skincare tips, Shen Mengchen was asked about her skincare routine, to which she replied, “I’ve tried the ‘meibaiwan’ [skin whitening pills], but I haven’t really seen any results even after eating 3 packs of them. I’ve also tried washing my face with white vinegar, and at one point I even contemplated getting skin whitening injections” (Tencent Video). What surprised and scared me the most while watching this interview was the fact that Barbie Hsu didn’t seem shocked or worried about Shen Mengchen’s attempts to whiten her skin; in fact, Barbie Hsu shared one of her own experiences of using blood thinners in order quickly to whiten her skin before an acting job. Barbie Hsu literally put her life at risk for whiter skin, as the side effects of blood thinners can range from bruising to deadly bleeding in the brain. During the interview, the two actresses even talked about the existence of new whitening salons with laser-operated skin whitening machines. I don’t know about you, but to me, getting a laser operation to whiten one’s skin seems a bit excessive and dangerous.

Another thing that scared me was the realization that probably at least some of the women who watched the interview may have tried some of the skin whitening techniques mentioned, thinking that if celebrities use such methods they’re probably harmless and effective. I argue that the promotion of skin whitening products and techniques needs to stop due to their potentially dangerous consequences. Furthermore, society as a whole in China should put an end to the belief that white skin is more beautiful than dark skin. This belief is the root cause of many risky “beauty” endeavors that Chinese women feel pressured to pursue.

Colorism in the Workplace in China

Next, to help you better understand how Chinese society today reinforces colorism, I will be diving deeper into one reason why Chinese women feel pressured to follow the fair skin beauty standard: colorism in the workplace. Many Chinese women believe that in order to be more competitive in the job market, they need to lighten their skin and learn how to use makeup to cover up some of their “less attractive qualities.” Meng Zhang, a professor at the University of Florida, conducted a study consisting of a series of in-depth interviews with Chinese college women to get their views on Chinese beauty standards. Meng Zhang reported that juniors and seniors expecting to enter the job market in the near future “said they were more concerned about their weight and appearance than ever before because of the upcoming job interviews. The women all felt the pressure to look beautiful in order to be ‘accepted by the society’ or to follow the ‘underlying rules’.” I find such discrimination in the workplace to be unacceptable and extremely unfair. Beauty should not be a factor in the hiring process and most definitely should not be a cause of stress for college students.

As a college student myself, I’ve been working hard to get good grades in my classes and pursue extracurricular activities that I believe will help me to develop useful skills for a job after college. Never did beauty standards cross my mind when thinking about ways to better my chances of being hired in the future. Hearing college women living in China talk about their worries stemming from a lack of confidence in their appearances made me reflect deeply on how my life would be different if I had grown up in China. The women interviewed by Meng Zhang have grown up to believe that beauty is an important asset for women to possess in order to have a good/easier life (Zhang). Is this what we should be teaching young girls, that beauty is more important than working hard and having a desire to learn? Although it can be argued that it’s impossible for employers to have no biases whatsoever when selecting job applicants, there is no excuse for these biases to be strongly pressuring young women to alter their appearances to make themselves “more competitive in the job market”. In many cases, the ways that Chinese women try to alter their appearances (whether it be through using skin whitening products or even getting cosmetic surgery) can be harmful or even life-threatening. Under no circumstances should people be risking their lives to make their job application more appealing.

Meitu, China’s Controversial Beauty App

Another point that I would like to touch on is the existence of an app called “Meitu” that has become widely popular across China. The beauty app was created in 2008 with the goal of allowing everyone to appear to have white and flawless skin in pictures without having to purchase expensive skin whitening products/treatments. The direct translation for “Meitu” is “Pretty Picture,” and basically, it’s an app that allows you to edit pictures and most importantly alter your appearance. The app is known for having tools to make “people thinner, whiter and more childlike in appearance.” Furthermore, “these tools make people look more Western, changing eyelid shape and lightening skin” (Inside Meitu). The app’s skin whitening feature in particular has received much criticism as the app has expanded overseas. Additionally, the app has caused Chinese women to feel the need to edit all of their pictures before posting on social media. The result is Chinese women feeling disappointed when they see their natural appearances in the mirror, and preferring a “touched up,” yet fake image of themselves. In an article written by Celia Chen, Meitu user and college student Xinyue Wang claimed that “Photos will not be posted on WeChat or Weibo [two popular Chinese social media networks] without beautification [through the Meitu app].” This compulsive need of young Chinese women to edit their pictures, especially the color of their skin, before sharing them with others is a sad result of colorism in China.

A controversial move that Meitu has expressed interest in taking is the introduction of an AI-based skin detection feature to recommend skincare and cosmetics products to users according to their skin conditions (Inside Meitu). Aside from all of the user privacy issues that would result from the implementation of such a feature, another concerning point for me is the fact that the app would probably recommend skin whitening products to its users to earn a profit. As mentioned earlier, many skin whitening products are harmful to the skin and can sometimes even be deadly. As you can see, many aspects of daily life perpetuate colorism in China. The fact that colorism is so deeply rooted in China’s societal norms is the reason why more people need to speak up about why it is wrong.

Making People Aware and Speaking Up

Now that you all are better informed on how colorism lives in China through traditional beauty standards, I hope that you all feel motivated to spread awareness of the existence of colorism. Although it will probably take a long time for colorism to become completely extinguished in China, we need to make more people aware of the toxic skin whitening industry as well as the societal pressures felt by young Chinese women to “improve” their appearances through skin whitening. I hope that through informing more people of the harsh realities faced by Chinese women due to the outdated belief that fair skin is better than dark skin, more people will be willing to speak out against this belief and spread the message that we should celebrate our differences rather than encourage uniformity. Especially in the United States where diversity is greatly valued and celebrated, I believe that a lot of Americans would be against colorism if they knew it existed.

If you all were shocked by the horrifying realities that colorism has produced in China, imagine having to live with such realities on a daily basis for your entire life. Imagine having to accept the fact that by being born with darker skin, you have been put at a disadvantage in society. Thank you all for listening to my speech and I hope you all consider sharing the insights you’ve gained today with your friends and family. Together through time, we can end colorism.