“And she was fayr as is the rose in May”
– Geoffrey Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women, Cleopatra.
When I came to Massachusetts to do my M.A. in Chaucerian Literature, two things struck me. One, I really had to study — and two, Asian women (in particular my Medievalist professor), have the best skin in the world. Today, I still believe both are true except I find myself studying Asian skincare and less of the Canterbury Tales (for a good bawdy read, try The Miller’s Tale – it was outlawed in the U.S. in 1873 due to language and sexual content!).
In the past 15 months I’ve been to Asia three times…Singapore, Seoul, Bali, Bangkok and Bintan, Indonesia. Each time I go back I learn a little more about their religion, art, food, (there’s a kimchi museum in Seoul), fashion and of course their skincare trends.
So I’d like to share with you one of my discoveries, which left me more than a little shocked. Let’s start with Singapore’s Orchard Road, the Fifth Avenue of the city. Apart from the fact you cannot get away from the throngs of people shopping, it’s hard not to notice the excessive advertising plastered everywhere. Lucky Plaza, Far East Plaza, Wisma Atria, Tangs, no matter where you look, all the big stores with the big brands are here…and they’re booming.
More surprising is the over abundance of skin-whitening products. Moisturizers, cleansers and face masks all designed to turn olive skinned complexions into white, pasty ones. This is a trend to maintain a pure, white complexion is a growing one in Both Singapore and Seoul. While I tried my best to expose my milk-bottle white arms in the sunlight, I noticed how many women beside me pulled open their umbrellas when waiting for the traffic light to turn green!
In Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, 4 of every 10 women use a whitening cream. Even more disturbing, the skin-whitening fad also includes creams like “pink nipple” lotions that bleach away brown pigment. Ouch!
And of course major cosmetics manufacturers are cashing on this need to bleach. They have responded with the introduction of skin whitening ranges targeting Asian women only. From Lancome, Dior, Chanel, SK-II, even Nivea, all the major cosmetic lines have their own special range and regime of whitening products for facial skin as well as body. Olay has White Radiance, L’Oréal produces White Perfect, Ponds Double White, and the list goes on and on. In 2005 alone, over 60 new skin-whitening products were launched in supermarkets or pharmacies across the Asia-Pacific region. You can’t get away from them, they’re everywhere. And to make matter worse, films and advertising aren’t helping the craze. The success of South Korean soap operas across the region has made their lighter-skinned stars emblems of Asian beauty.
So why the fascination with white skin? Apparently, a fair complexion symbolizes both youth and beauty to women here. A lighter complexion is associated with wealth and higher education levels. Lower social classes who would do more outdoor labor and are therefore more exposed to the sun. What we’d call here a farmer’s tan. Oh! How they must laugh at our plebian spray-on tans, and ever-evolving self-tanners!
Perhaps the most bothersome issue about all of this whitening of skin is the health risks. Dermatologists are prescribing creams with hydroquinone which causes skin irritations like redness and itching and more serious side effects like ochronosis, the appearance of very dark patches of skin that are very difficult to remove. That’s not all. Continual use of these chemical-laden products can develop leukoderma, a condition where the skin loses the ability to produce pigment, resulting in patches of pink. It almost looks like the person has been burned. There are many horror stories of people who have lost jobs, destroyed their appearance after years of using these products.
But thankfully the news isn’t all gloomy. Only this September, Japanese customers waited for hours in line to return SK-II skincare products in Shanghai because they contained substances such as neodymium and chromium, which are normally banned in cosmetics. Chromium can cause allergic reactions such as skin rash while neodymium is irritating to the eyes and skin and can cause lung embolisms and do harm to the liver if it accumulates in the human body.
Perhaps all of this is a wake up call to Asian women slathering on chemicals in the hope to whiten their face for the sake “beauty” – or their image of what beauty is. The heyday of the “geisha” is over and it’s time we take a look at all the natural goodness around us for a more natural, healthier beauty. Because turning to chemicals is simply a whitewash when it comes to inner and outer beauty. Even Mr. Chaucer from the 14th century, would agree with us on that.