ASSOCIATION FOR CONSUMER RESEARCH
Labovitz School of Business & Economics, University of Minnesota Duluth, 11 E. Superior Street, Suite 210, Duluth, MN 55802
Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures
Eric P.H. Li, York University, Canada
Hyun Jeong Min, University of Utah
Russell W. Belk, York University, Canada
“Whiteness” or having white skin is considered an important element in constructing female beauty in Asian cultures. A dramatic
growth of skin whitening and lightening products has occurred in Asian markets. Contemporary meanings of whiteness are influenced
by Western ideologies as well as traditional Asian values and beliefs. In this study, we analyze print advertisements for skin whitening
and lightening products in four Asian societies -- India, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. We compare the verbal messages and visual
images for both global brands and local brands and across countries. We find that whiteness in these Asian cultures is both
empowering and disempowering as well as both global and local in character.
Eric P.H. Li, Hyun Jeong Min, Russell W. Belk, and Junko Kimura, Shalini Bahl (2008) ,"Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four
Asian Cultures", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 35, eds. Angela Y. Lee and Dilip Soman, Duluth, MN :
Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 444-449.
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444 Advances in Consumer Research
Volume 35, © 2008
Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures
Eric P. H. Li, York University, Canada
Hyun Jeong Min, University of Utah, USA
Russell W. Belk, York University, Canada
Junko Kimura, Hosei University, Japan
Shalini Bahl, University of Utah, USA
“Whiteness” or having white skin is considered an important
element in constructing female beauty in Asian cultures. A dra-
matic growth of skin whitening and lightening products has oc-
curred in Asian markets. Contemporary meanings of whiteness are
influenced by Western ideologies as well as traditional Asian
values and beliefs. In this study, we analyze print advertisements for
skin whitening and lightening products in four Asian societies—
India, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. We compare the verbal
messages and visual images for both global brands and local brands
and across countries. We find that whiteness in these Asian cultures
is both empowering and disempowering as well as both global and
local in character.
“White skin” has emerged as a central desideratum of con-
sumer culture in affluent Asia. Not only does skin lightness affect
perceptions of a woman’s beauty, it also affects her marital pros-
pects, job prospects, social status, and earning potential (Ashikari
2003b; Goon and Craven 2003; Leslie 2004). The beauty ideal of
white skin in Asia predates colonialism and the introduction of
Western notions of beauty (e.g., Wagatsuma 1967). Contemporary
meanings of white skin combine Western mass-mediated ideolo-
gies and traditional Asian cultural values. The popularity of Cauca-
sian and Eurasian models reflects the postcolonial structure of
commoditization and consumerism and is still influenced by a
colonial past (Goon and Craven 2003). Western-centrism and
cultural hegemony interact with Asian ideologies like Confucian-
ism in strengthening the ideal of whiteness (Russell 1996).
Asian countries have long histories of utilizing white skin as
a key criterion of personal beauty. In Korea, flawless skin like white
jade and an absence of freckles and scars have been preferred since
the first dynasty in Korean history (the Gojoseon Era, 2333-108
B.C.E.). Various methods of lightening the skin have long been
used in Korea, such as applying miansoo lotion and dregs of honey
(Jeon, 1987). In Japan, applying white powder to the face has been
considered a woman’s moral duty since the Edo period (Ashikari
2003a; 2003b; 2005). In India, white skin is considered as a mark
of class and caste as well as an asset (Leistikow 2003). Historically,
women (especially married women) in South India bathed with
turmeric. Apart from the health benefits involved, it also has skin
lightening and anti-inflammatory properties. In China, “milk-white”
skin is a symbol of beauty and some Chinese women used to
swallow powdered pearls in the hopes of becoming whiter (China
Daily 2006). Although there are cultural variations, the desire for
light skin is universal (Isa and Kramer 2003; Russell, Wilson and
“Whiteness” remains an important element in contemporary
postcolonial Asian understandings of beauty and has become a
commodity in the marketplace (Goon and Craven 2003). Skin
lightening products are popular not only in Asian cultures, but in
other non-white cultures as well (e.g., Burke 1996; Del Giudice
2002; Duany 1998; Hall 1995; Lovell and Wood 1993). Fueled by
increasing Asian wealth and growing consumer cultures, skin
whitening and lightening products have recorded dramatic growth
in Asia during the past several decades (Ashikari 2005). Mass
media and the fashion industry play important roles in reinforcing
the yearning for white skin. Advertisements also play important
roles in shaping ideal self images for consumers (Belk and Pollay
1985), and are the focus of our research.
We studied how advertisers portray skin color to women in
Asian cultures. Content analysis and semiotic analysis were used in
exploring the notion of white skin in four Asian societies (India,
Japan, Korea and Hong Kong). We compared the cultural similari-
ties and differences in advertising skin whitening and lightening
products by both global brands and domestic brands. We also
studied the metaphors used in advertisements in order to understand
the process of constructing the meanings of “whiteness” in different
Globalizing Notions of Beauty
In India, the words for fair and beautiful are synonymous
(Franklin 1968; Hall 1995). In one view “whiteness” and “pale-
ness” are distinct but related concepts, “signifying both distinction
between, and collusion with, the historical myths of paleness
associated with feminine discourses of beauty, and ‘whiteness’ as
an imperialist, racialized value of superiority” (Goon and Craven
2003). Although, as we have already noted, ideals of whiteness
embedded in Asian notions of female beauty predate colonialism
and other forms of contact with the West, the prevalence of
Caucasian models in many Asian advertisements for beauty prod-
ucts raises the possibility that beauty ideals are or are becoming
global. According to a study of the Human Relations Area Files
more than 20 years ago, of 312 different cultures, 51 used skin color
as a criterion of beauty, and in all but four of these lighter skin was
preferred (Van den Berge and Frost 1986). Russell, Wilson, and
Hall (1992) note that while white is associated with purity, righ-
teousness, decency, and auspiciousness, black is associated with
wickedness, villainy, menace, and illegality. In Asia, skin lighten-
ing as well as cosmetic surgeries that provide a more Western
appearance (e.g., Kaw 1993; Miller 2003) have been taken by some
as evidence of the global appeal of Western and Caucasian stan-
dards of beauty (Goon and Craven 2003; Isa and Kramer 2003). But
others reject this conclusion, pointing for example to the desire of
white Western men for the dark exotic “Other” (e.g., Hunter 2005).
This is a weak argument however in that the transgressive desire for
Otherness may offer an element of perceived danger and excite-
ment but has hardly brought about the homogenization of skin
pigmentation through widespread intermarriage of dark skinned
and light skinned people.
During the colonial era, and arguably before and after as well,
rather than a homogenizing blending of skin color, there has instead
been an attempt to distinguish the dark Other as “primitive” and
inferior, thereby supporting the mission of the light skinned
colonialist to conquer and control the natives of Africa, the Ameri-
cas, Australia, New Zealand, and Polynesia (Torgovnick 1990). A
Advances in Consumer Research (Volume 35) / 445
part of this project has entailed equating dark skin color with dirt,
filth, and defilement (Spurr 1993). When Charles Darwin (1839)
encountered the natives of Tierra del Fuego, he described them as
“stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white
paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their voices discordant, their
gestures violent and without dignity.” As Torgovnick analyzes
William Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series, she finds that “As the series
develops, it increasingly affirms existing hierarchies, including the
hierarchy of male over female, white over black, West over rest”
(1990, 46). And McClintock (1995) shows how advertisements for
Pears soap depict its ability to magically cleanse the body of a black
child and make it white, vividly illustrating the association of
darkness with dirt. At the same time, advertisements suggest that
the colonial mission of “civilizing” native populations necessarily
involves imposing a global standard of Caucasian beauty.
Cultural Meanings of Whiteness
In Japan, the Tokugawa government effectively sealed off the
country from Western influence in 1639. It was not until 1853 that
Commodore Perry and his American “black ships” forced Japan to
reopen its ports. During the subsequent period of the Meiji Resto-
ration, both Japanese men and women began to self-consciously
imitate the clothing, hairstyles, and appearance of Westerns
(Wagatsuma 1967). While early paintings of Western sailors show
the men with dark tans (note too the image of black ships), Western
women were shown as pale and white. By the 1920s, anything
Western was regarded as modern and desirable (Wagatsuma 1967;
Kinmonth 1981). This was also the case during and following
World War I and World War II (Kato 1965). Wagatsuma (1967)
reports a survey of Japanese men that found that they valued white
skin as a significant element in judging the beauty of Japanese
women and associated it with femininity, chastity, purity, moral
virtue, and motherhood. In addition he found that the quality of
mochi-hada (“skin like pounded rice”) had sexual connotations for
many of these men. However, this is a beauty ideal that is not the
same as the Western use of cosmetics to enhance or change
appearance. Instead it is a uniform fitting-in that has only become
somewhat less severe than the use of lead-based face whitening in
the Meiji era (Ashikari 2003b). More than 90 percent of middle-
class Japanese women adopt this face in public and even those who
tan their bodies avoid tanning their faces and use the standard color
of foundation makeup (Ashikari 2003b). Japanese whiteness is thus
about Japanese racial identity and according to Ashikari (2005) it is
seen as quite different from and even superior to Western white-
ness. Caucasian women are regarded as beautiful in Japan, although
Caucasian men are more likely to be described as big-nosed “hairy
barbarians.” Still, they are regarded more positively than blacks
who are described by some Japanese as bestial and animal-like
(Russell 1996; Wagatsuma 1967).
In traditional Chinese culture, the idiom “one white covers up
three uglinesses” (Bray 2002) still has currency. Most of the
portraits of goddesses and Buddha have white skin. But in China too
there was an historical influence of Western notions of beauty and
fashion during from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with
strong similarities to contemporary China following the “open
door” policies introduced in the late 1970s (Belk and Zhao 2003).
Shanghai, along with four other Chinese “treaty port cities” and
Hong Kong, was forced to open to the West after losing the Opium
War in 1843. Western goods, fashions, films, and inventions
flooded Shanghai as a result. This was a jarring development
compared to previous periods when China regarded itself as the
center of the universe and was largely impervious to attempts to
import foreign goods. Women’s appearances became increasingly
Westernized in the 1930s and incorporated high heel shoes, furs,
bobbed hair, and Western beauty products. Chinese women who
adopted such fashions also became the target of an anti-foreign and
anti-consumerist movement, the Kuomintang or New Life Move-
ment. The Japanese invasion of China and World War II intervened,
but this movement eventually led to civil war and the establishment
of the communist party in China. Women’s looks and clothing
became decidedly less consumerist and Western under commu-
nism until the late 1970s. The recent rise of consumerism in China
has brought about a resurgence of Westernized fashions. But the
legacy of foreign conquests and humiliations of China have also led
to a simultaneous love/hate relationship with the global and foreign
in contemporary China (Belk and Zhao 2003; Zhou and Belk 2004).
In the long tradition of Korean shamanism, a person with white
skin is respected. The myth of the Buryat Mongols of South-Central
Siberia, where Korean shamanism originated, tells that the first
superhuman was born white. In Korea, people who have white skin
have long been told that they look noble. In the upper class of the
Koyro dynasty (918-1392), children washed their faces with peach
flower water to make their skin clean, white, and transparent, and
girls before marriage were desperate to have white skin. Even for
men, the skin complexion of a noble man was almost always
expressed as being like pale jade (Jeon 1987). After the opening of
its seaports to the foreign Powers since 1876, Western clothing,
accessories, hairstyles, and make-up were distributed in the cities of
Korea. “New women,” who were also called modern girls, were
very active in embracing Western standards of beauty. Names like
Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo were mentioned often describ-
ing beauty (Yoo 2001).
In Indian culture, “black” is associated with underprivileged
people and is a symbol of “dark,” “dirty,” “wrong,” “hell,” and
“unfairness” and is opposite to “good,” “bright,” and “well-being”.
White skin is always associated with positive messages in Indian
and Hindu culture. It is taken as s sign of “beauty,” “purity,”
“cleanliness,” and “happiness,” and is a symbol of power and
privilege (Arif 2004). In Hindu religion, Kali, a dark-skin goddess,
is a symbol of ugliness, cruelty, and destruction (Arif 2004; Leeming
2001) and manifests the negative association of dark skinned
women in Indian society.
In sum, “whiteness” is an important sign in presenting and
constructing beauty in many non-white cultures. Also, whiteness is
associated with perceptions of gender, virtue, and cultural identity.
Desires for “whiteness,” under this chain of associations, is pursued
for mixed reasons by women in everyday life. In the social context,
white face and white skin can be identified as a form of performance
(Goffman 1967, 1979), which presents and re-represents the beauty
and virtue of an individual within the community.
Classism and Racism: White Privilege
Differences in skin color are not only perceived as marking
physical differences between and among groups of people, but also
to mark social and cultural distinctions in terms of racial and
historical background. Classism and racism develop socially rather
than biologically, but markers may be artificially coded in terms of
differences in skin colors. In color-ranking societies like America
(Hall 1995), “double-consciousness” (DuBois 1969) and a dual
perspective (Norton 1993) were common social phenomena in
inter-ethnic interactions. The “light at the top” phenomenon spread
over non-white cultures. Those with light skin and Caucasian-
looking features have also enjoyed more respect in their communities
(Russell, Wilson, and Hall 1992). Euro-centric ideology took root
in many cultures with the rise of colonialism in the eighteenth
century and with the spread of mass media and consumer goods in
446 / Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures
the twentieth century. White males occupied the top of the social
hierarchy while non-white females, especially black females, were
at the bottom. People from non-white cultures, like African
Americans, “bleached” themselves (first with folk preparations and
later with commercial skin lighteners) in an attempt to blend in the
dominant society (Hall 1995).
As Banton (1967) observes, race and ethnicity become the
signs that lead to the assignment of positions in the overall system
of exploitation. Mass media and marketers have aided and abetted
this phenomenon by portraying distinctions between races and
ethnic groups. Hollywood movies and mass media in the West
frequently portray darker skin people as lower class, dirty, and evil,
while white or light skin people are depicted as morally purer, better
educated, more intelligent, and cleaner. Even Spike Lee’s 1988 film
School Daze emphasizes this prejudice. Dark skin continues to be
associated with unpleasantness, dirt, crime, and disruption of
society (Russell, Wilson, and Hall 1992; Hall 1995) as well as lower
social status, while light or white skin is associated with purity and
higher social class. This social stratification process exists in non-
Western cultures as well. Dark skinned people in Japan are per-
ceived as lower class (or farmers) since they work under the sun
while light skinned people are more likely to have been sheltered
indoors rather than working outside.
According to Lipsitz (1998, p. 3), “the power of whiteness
depended not only on white hegemony over separate racialized
groups, but also on manipulating racial outsiders to fight against
one another, to compete with each other for white approval, and to
seek the rewards and privileges of whiteness for themselves at the
expense—literally—of other racialized populations”. Stereotypes
among whites and non-whites spread from the inter-cultural arena
to intra-cultural contexts. “Civilized White” and “Barbarous Black”
(Russell 1996) ideologies became internalized in non-white cul-
tures. Light and fair skin tone become the desired skin tone and was
perceived as “sign” of prestige within the non-white cultures on
each of the world’s continents.
Advertisements for skin-related products are the focus of our
analysis. As advertising is one of the important archival records for
storing cultural images and texts (Belk and Pollay 1985), we sought
to study how brands project ideologies and create or reinforce new
standards via their images and messages. Six magazines (Cosmo-
politan, Elle, a local high fashion magazine, a similar magazine for
working women,1 a movie magazine, and a bridal magazine) were
collected from each of four Asian societies (India, Japan, Korea and
Hong Kong) for a fixed time frame (March, June, September, and
December issues in 2005). We focused on advertisements for
cosmetics, skin care products, skin care services, foods and bever-
ages claiming to improve skin quality, and other skin-related
products and services. We did not include advertisements for
shampoos, hair products, or plastic surgery. After removing dupli-
cates, 620 advertisements were coded for comparison: 108 ads from
India, 103 from Japan, 225 from Korea, and 184 from Hong Kong.
Promotional articles, advice columns, and editorials were also
examined, but are not analyzed here.
Content analysis and semiotic analysis were used in this study.
In the initial content analysis we recorded: information about (1)
model’s identity (Caucasian or Asian; local or foreign), (2) back-
ground color, (3) skin color of the model(s), (4) slogan, (5) product
depiction (present or not present), (6) brand and product name(s),
(7) function of products, (8) technology/ingredient(s) claims, (9)
language used, and (10) appearance of model(s) (posture, body
parts included, hair-style, hair-color, accessories). Skin color was
coded using a standardized color wheel and involved fourteen
possible categories ranging from soft ivory to cocoa. Each adver-
tisement was coded by a research team member from the country in
which the ad appeared. We then met to present, compare, and
discuss the results of the analysis. This lead to more qualitative
comparisons of the ads, cultural background discussions, and
refinement of the codes employed.
In the subsequent semiotic analysis we focused on studying
the metaphors invoked in the advertisement. Here we explored the
implicit messages of the advertisements. We identified the signifiers
and signifieds in the advertisements following Barthes (1964). We
compared similarities and differences between global and local
brands as well as cultural differences between ads from the four
societies studied. The research team made these comparisons as a
group following individual analyses of ads from each country.
Notions of “Good Skin” and “Bad Skin”
Skin care advertisements in each country emphasized that
“good skin” should be smooth, young, pore-less, line-free, bright,
transparent, white, full, and fine. “Bad skin” is referenced in the ads
as skin with fine lines, wrinkles, aging marks, pores, or yellow
spots, and skin that is dark, scratchy, dry, dull, loose, or rough. The
major causes of bad skin are presented as being aging, dryness,
ultraviolet radiation (or exposure to strong sunlight), stress, air
pollution, slow metabolism, lack of rest, overuse of cosmetics, and
the formation of melanin.
Functions/New Technology/New Ingredient
Product advertisements typically made multiple claims for
their products. The main functions claimed for the skin care
products in the advertisements are repairing skin, smoothing/
removing wrinkles/lines/deep spots/yellow spots/black eyes/baggy
eyes, itching/dullness/oil/grease/dirt, improving fairness of com-
plexion, rejuvenating, brightening, cleansing, whitening, smooth-
ing, or restoring skin, increasing moisture retention, maintaining
elasticity, and preventing the formation of melanin. Statistics and
survey results as well as government approval certifications were
found in the skin color ads across the studied countries in order to
suggest scientific proof of the efficacy of the products. Examples of
these claims include the percentage of users who agreed that they
had improved skin quality after using the product. Results of
experiments were also cited to show effects, including increased
moisture retention levels and reduced pore size. In Korea, although
a few skin care advertisements included survey or lab test results,
they were not emphasized as much as in the Hong Kong and Indian
ads. Instead, acknowledgement of official approval of claims (e.g.
wrinkle reduction, UV screening, and whitening) by the Korean
Food and Drug Administration was common. Some of the ads
emphasized formulation for Asian women’s skin specifically.
Technologies referenced included the use of Nano-technology in
extracting essences from natural materials, dissolution of dirt, UV
protection, and the addition of a protective layer to the skin. At the
1A magazine for housewives was used instead in Korea because a
prominent magazine for working women is not available.
Advances in Consumer Research (Volume 35) / 447
same time, there were frequent claims of natural ingredients and
extracts or essences of natural ingredients in the ads. Emphasis was
very commonly on “natural” beauty as opposed to “artificial” or
A Lighter Shade of Pale
Caucasian models were most often used in ads for global
brands like Estee Lauder and L’Oreal. Forty-four percent of Korean
and fifty-four percent of Japanese ads used Caucasian models.
Local models did not often appear in global brands’ ads in Korea,
Hong Kong or Japan but eighty-two percent of the Indian ads used
Indian models or celebrities. One reason for this may be the recent
globalization of Indian beauty as affirmed by a number of Indian
winners of such global beauty contests as Miss World and Miss
Universe. From 1990-2006 Indian models won 11 of these titles.
The dominance of Bollywood film in India also diminishes the
impact of Hollywood ideologies in Indian culture. Indian celebri-
ties appear to be the dominant body ideals for Indian women.
Domestic and regional brands (including Asian brands like Shiseido)
use more local models in each of the countries studied. In Japan,
celebrities who participated in Hollywood movies, including Kaori
Momoi from Geisha and Koyuki from Last Samurai, are used in ads
for global brands (e.g., SK-II). In contrast to the global brands’
localization strategies (e.g., “for Asian skin”), here the Hollywood
reference claims a more global status for local brands, playing on
local pride. In other words, local models in Asian cultures are
moving upwards towards the global standard–the western standard
In the case of Japan, Korea and Hong Kong, the skin color of
the model, whether Caucasian or local, is primarily soft ivory,
classic ivory, and natural ivory. In the case of India, the skin color
of models (who were predominantly Indian) tended to be more fair
and Caucasian-looking. The skin color of models in advertisements
that emphasize “natural” tended to be moderately light—either soft
ivory or natural ivory. Models in these ads had minimal make-up,
conveying a “natural beauty” look. The skin color of models for
prestige brands, and ads emphasizing a somewhat older “classic” or
“elegant” image, tended to be a lighter classic ivory. Thus, skin
color is conflated with class and whiter skin costs more.
Globalized Products, Localized Slogans/Themes/Metaphors
Global brands like Estée Lauder and L’Oreal distribute the
same product lines in each Asian market studied. Variations of their
product lines occur, but are minor. But localized advertising mes-
sages are used. We focus on Chinese ads for illustration in this
section. For example, advertisements referencing Chinese tradi-
tions found in the Hong Kong magazines included: inner-body/
internal treatment, the power of white tea, claims of herbal ingredi-
ents, and combinations of herbal medicine and Western technolo-
Metaphors used in Hong Kong included collagen derived from
sharks, presumably because shark fin soup is a luxury food served
at Chinese banquets. Pandas were used to present the black eyes
since “Panda’s eye” is commonly used to describe a person who
lacks sleep or is in an exhausted and extremely tired condition.
Internal treatments of blood and the importance of harmonizing the
body internally were often emphasized. This relates to Qi and the
balance of yin and yang as well as the basic elements in Chinese
foods and medicines. Also, skin care advertisements sometimes
claimed that they follow the traditional Chinese Imperial Palace
secret formula. Pearls, gold, and platinum were used to emphasize
luxuriousness in these ads, while water, clear sky, and natural
environment were used to suggest naturalness. Symbols like gold,
aristocrats, and luxury foods like sharks’ fins and birds’ nests were
found in the skin care advertisements in Hong Kong. Other
ingredients like Ling Zhi and Song-Yi mushroom (Matsutake
tricoloma), which were used traditionally by upper class families
and emperors for retaining the skin whiteness are now touted in skin
whitening ads (Onions 1998).
“Natural” was found repeatedly in advertisements of each
country, In Hong Kong these appeals were also localized with
natural ingredients like the essence of white tea (Origins), Chinese
herbal medicine (like Ling Zhi and Agaricus), and minerals from
volcanoes or hot-springs. Common slogans for skin lightening
products and services included rejuvenating yourself, brightening
and lightening your skin, stopping time (associated with aging),
perfecting your skin, creating pearl-like (MaxFactor)/water-like/
baby-like skin, climbing the peak of beauty, controlling your future
(Olay), increasing confidence and attractiveness. For example,
Missha’s “Illuminating Arbutin Skincare” collection emphasizes
that the product can turn users’ skin as white as the snow. ”Many
messages ask for close attention to the deeper level of skin.
Seemingly unproblematic skin turns out to be the problematic when
it is seen from its roots. The detection of early symptoms of bad skin
and the correction of defects as early as possible is emphasized.
Technology also played an important role in these messages with
frequent references to advanced technologies bringing in “new”
methods to skin care and magical effects to the skin. For example,
Sofina’s “Whitening Deep Science” emphasizes the newly devel-
oped technology that can avoid the formation of melanin. The
appeal to advanced technology emphasizes belief and trust in
science to minimize poor or declining skin quality.
“White Skin” as “Cultural Capital” in Asian Society
White Skin, in our findings, combines with other socio-
cultural symbols such as the natural environment, fresh air, blue
sky, and water, in order to emphasize purity and naturalness. Also,
in Asian cultures, white skin is perceived as a sign of luxury and
prestige. Asian celebrities with white/fair skin also link their
success with whiteness/fairness. Altering skin color implies success
in controlling the body and thereby achieving an ideal body image
Thompson (2004) introduced the Gnostic mythos, which
refers to the “ideological wedding of technology and transcendence”
(Noble 1999; Thompson 2004). A similar emphasis on technologies
in skin care and whitening industry played an important role in
building consumers’ expectations for the Cinderella-like
transformative power of the products advertised. Natural ingredients
or essences create a sense of natural health for consumers (Thompson
and Troester 2002) and emphasize the natural beauty of the skin.
Since ingredients were frequently touted as derived from naturally
existing organisms (especially plants), it was also implied that our
(consumers’) bodies can adapt to these components with minimal
side-effects like allergies.
At a theoretical level, whiteness is a source of symbolic
cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984, 1986) that is associated with upper
class images, luxury, prestige and success in Asian cultures (Rhada
2007). Also, a natural white skin is associated with advanced in
technology, while at the same time claiming natural ingredients,
and body control as discussed below.
Body Control, Empowerment and Disempowerment of Asian
From our findings, white skin is always linked with naturalness.
In “naturalizing” skin it is implied that this is the natural order of
things from which we have departed. Women who have white and
448 / Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures
fair skin were perceived as “normal” and others who fail to achieve
a fair complexion are suggested as failing to manage and control
their bodies. Internal factors that are accused of causing “bad skin”
include aging, stress, inadequate relaxation, and abnormal body
conditions, while external factors are suggested to include air
pollution, dryness, humidity, and strong sunlight. In Thompson and
Troester’s (2002) study, restoring the harmony of the body is one of
the conceptual goals of natural health. Having a healthy skin,
according to Crawford (1985), is a matter of self-control, self-
discipline, self-denial, and will power. Skin care product
advertisements frequently call consumers’ attention to tiny defects
of skin or invisible sources of troubles and ask them to control these
things in order to have good skin. In order to have good skin,
consumers are required to apply the advertised products every day.
This self-surveillance and internalization of skin care regimens
underwrite most of the advertisements. Fear of the invisible enemies
of the skin creates skin care disciplines and exemplifies strategies
of modern governance (Foucault 1984, 1985). Skin care products
are advertised as capable of improving skin quality as well as
controlling the skin’s quality under extreme conditions. Naturalness
is essential in the skin care context, and advertisements use words
like “recover,” “rejuvenate,” “repair,” “prevent,” “refresh,” “retain,”
and “revitalize” to emphasize that the product will help to regain
and maintain the user’s skin rather than “change” and “alter” it like
plastic surgery. “Flawless” skin is presented as the fundamental
skin type of humans and any flaw is therefore unnatural. Success in
controlling the human body and reversing the natural order is
appealed to through controlling and altering skin color. It is the
outward sign of inner beauty. The emphases on technological
advancement and new ingredients promise to enhance this control
by adopting Western technologies, but also celebrate the broader
human control over nature.
Whitening and lightening skin has both empowering and
disempowering functions for women. In Asian cultures, women
were oppressed for long periods of time. In China, women were
labeled as mere attachments to men. The Confucian Doctrine of
Threefold Obedience (san cong) was established in Li ji, and held
that women were subordinates to their fathers as girls, to their
husbands as wives, and to their sons as widows (Raphals 1998).
Likewise in Korea during the Choson dynasty (1392-1910) middle
class women were sequestered within the center of the household
and were not allowed to venture forth uncovered or on their own
(Song-mi 2003). The ability of whitening and lightening skin to
empower women lies in delivering power in controlling their own
skin tone as well as bodies. This empowering action also liberates
women from men’s control. Along with the increasing social status
of women in contemporary Asian societies, women become
important agents both at home and in the workplace. However,
contemporary women are disempowered in the same manner.
Women, even when empowered to control their bodies and skin
tone, still follow the external control of a beauty standard. As noted
above, they also succumb to a strategy of modern self-governance.
In this sense, women are still following the social norm and are
working hard to achieve social acceptance in order to secure their
social status as well as accumulate social capital in society.
Whitening and lightening skin products have recorded a
dramatic growth in Asian markets over the past two decades and are
the best-selling product categories in the Asian beauty industry.
The long histories of the desire for white skin and fair skin has
collided with technological developments and marketing forces.
Skin whitening and lightening products not only promise to fulfill
the desire for white and fair skin as a route to higher status, but also
empower women to control their own bodies and alter nature. On
the other hand, whitening and lightening skin are a social norm that
“forces” women to follow such trends and standards as well as
marketplace mythologies (Thompson 2004). Failure in following
this norm will result in low self-esteem and social status. In social
interaction contexts, white and fair skins are social symbols and
regimes. The notion of beauty is socially constructed and its
meanings are changed and maintained by social forces.
The desire for white and fair skin is a global phenomenon
especially in non-white cultures and is not limited to Asian con-
texts. African, South American and Middle-Eastern cultures also
have their own traditions of skin whitening and lightening. This
study explores how skin whitening and lightening products con-
struct the contemporary notion of whiteness in Asian countries and
interprets how this notion reinforces the embedded meanings of
whiteness and beauty in Asia.
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