Updated: May 22
Dear Asian Youth,
Colorism is defined as discrimination based on skin color. It is the belief that a person with a lighter complexion is more "beautiful" than someone with darker skin. I remember experiencing colorism at a young age, around 12-14 years old. That was around the time I discovered K-Pop and became heavily invested in orienting myself towards the Asian beauty standards. Something that was always emphasized was the value of paler skin tones—many K-dramas had a flurry of background ads promoting skin whitening products. I grew up in America where tan skin is desirable, not really caring about the shade of skin. My complexion is neither dark nor fair—I think it’s in the middle. All of the portrayals of pale skin as beautiful influenced me to buy my first skin-whitening soap at the age of 14. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being affected by colorism.
At 16 years old, the issue resurfaced as I began a deep dive into colorism for an online event I am working on. I learned that even before the Westernization of Asia, skin color was seen as a sign of socio-economic status. Paleness was a sign of nobility because people were able to stay indoors while their servants labored outside, resulting in their subsequent lightness. A lighter skin tone would be equated with power, racial superiority, status, high income, marriage, and employment. After all of my Asian media consumption, I became hyper-aware of the emphasis on light skin.
I want to talk about skin bleaching products a little bit. When I first purchased my skin-lightening soaps, I had only wished that my skin color would become lighter—I hadn't researched any health effects that could follow my use of the product. A number of countries have banned the use of skin bleaching products because of the dangers associated with them. In 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Trusted Source also issued a notice that over-the-counter (OTC) skin bleaching products are not recognized as safe and effective. It’s clear that whitening products are damaging to your skin and are unpredictable in the negative effects they might have on you. Now, the question is: why do people still continue to use them even knowing the risks? Asian media is filled with celebrities testing out whitening products, and billboards always showcase pale models. It’s hard not to be influenced by these constant messages of whiteness as beauty. I think that teenagers especially are unable to escape these harmful notions of beauty.
Education on the health risks associated with skin-bleaching products and more representation of Asian women with darker skin tones is important. I think its importance lies in dismantling the belief that the equivalence of fair skin to beauty is integral to making Asian youth feel more comfortable with their natural selves. With social media becoming a growing part of our lives, the absence of seeing ourselves portrayed in popular platforms can be harmful to self-esteem. Especially with editing apps which purposefully make skin tones whiter, this toxic notion continues to permeate every part of Asia and beyond. Obviously, this is a heavy issue that can’t be handled overnight, but I hope we, as Asian youth, can commit to changing these exclusionary beauty standards. As cliché as it sounds, I want to leave everyone who reads this with the affirmation that your self-image shouldn’t be impacted by the color of your skin.
- Ella Ip
Cover photo source: CCove