Your Beautiful White Face

From Mali to Malaysia, the rush is on.  The New York Times is reporting that India is the latest nation to be embroiled in a discussion about “beauty” and skin complexion.  International firms like L’Oreal and Unilever are marketing products in Africa, Latin America and Asia promising to lighten skin and create new opportunities for love and career advancement.

What is compelling about this is not the assumption that this type of marketing is odious.  That’s hardly the point.  The issue is that Africans, Asians and Latin Americans consistently remark that their nations are free from the “racial animus” or “color consciousness” of the United States.  The comments are made in the face of some serious conflicting evidence.  There is broad appeal for these products.  Sales have spiked and the demand curves suggest new and more innovative campaigns to satisfy more and more customers.

The attraction for lighter skin in women has evolved in different ways in different locales.  The evolution in Asia is not the same as in Africa or Latin America.  Nor has that preference come about the same way in Europe or among whites in the United States.  Presently, the whites in the United States do not exhibit a clear preference for the pale skin idealized in India, Japan, Korea or in parts of Africa.  What may have begun as an indication of social status (tanned white skin indicating menial labor in the outdoors) has often become synonymous with ill health.
Was not Kate Moss the poster girl for drug addiction and anorexia while also being the waif-like body/face of Calvin Klein adverteasing?  Nothing keeps a model in tip-top shape like a few lines of the good stuff.  That’s not a sexy look.  That’s a near-death look – but it worked – for a time.

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Since that time, Kate’s more often than not revealed, captured, depicted as colorized, even Africanized.  Americans may occasionally go for that pasty pale look, but there is usually something else in the “package.”  (Even in this pic, it’s easy to see the photographers use of color to change the appearance of this actress.)

What do we make of the fascination with pale skin in India?  It’s an age-old dynamic rooted in thousands of years of history.  It couldn’t be about Krishna:

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“The term Krishna in Sanskrit has the literal meaning of “black” or “dark”, and is used as a name to describe someone with dark skin. The Brahma Samhita describes Krishna’s complexion as being “tinged with the hue of blue clouds”,[2] and he is often depicted in paintings with blue or dark-blue skin. In murthis, Krishna is more commonly portrayed as being dark skinned or black. For instance, the Jagannatha (a name meaning: Krishna as ‘Lord of the World’), deity at Puri in Orissa shows Krishna as being ‘jet black’ in colour alongside his brother Balarama, and sister Subhadra, the latter two having much lighter complexions.”

This has absolutely nothing to do with “Europeans”…in fact, these values stem from a time when there was no Europe.  It does have something to do with Aryans and Brahmins, though.  It all makes for interesting reading when one considers the impact of pre-Aryan Indus Valley civilization on our modern world.  Just who were these ancient people with their jet black god?  And who are their descendants with their abundantly obvious ‘fear of a black planet’?  Another thread, another time.

Back to the modern world of marketing and beauty products:  The latest is that Unilever is going to market these products to men.

A word to the wise: “That shit ain’t gonna help you get laid, buddy.  Remember the Jheri Curl?  Exactly.  Get some sun, lift some weights, kcik some endorphins, earn some loot, learn how to smile and relax.”

17 comments

  1. I can only speak about the chinese aspect of this, from visiting many countries in east asia, and talking with asian colleagues in the area about this subject.

    When I first encountered this strong marketing in asia, which associates beauty and success with white skin, I had a strong revulsion to the idea that asians in asia identified so strongly with the european phenotype.

    As it turns out, the chinese obsession with white skin has close to nothing to do with caucasian folk or a want to be european. There is a long history, I mean millenea, that favors those with lighter skin, long before contact with european cultures. Light skin was a sign of being in the class of folk that got to stay inside vs. working in the fields and outside.

    Also, east asians want to look porcelain-white, not pink-white.

    So, strong resemblance to more familiar color-struckness in America, but this time, it’s a coincidence—at least for east asians.

  2. I’ve heard the same thing. It’s an interesting thing and has more to do with class than “race.” It’s a social construct – in the same way that tanning came to symbolize leisure time for the wealthy. It’s all about the loot – even moreso than it’s about the look.

  3. On the money, as usual, Temple3.

    In traditional Chinese culture, aristocrats not only avoided the sun, they wore long robes and grew long fingernails — obviously impediments to field work. Women with bound feet were, of course, the most extreme manifestation of this class distinction.

    However, I’d also argue that the modern encounter with European white supremacy and mass media has had an impact in East Asia, though it’s hard to say to what extent. On the one hand, the Chinese do make fun of white folks’ “big noses” (or as some put it, “very three-dimensional face”). On the other hand, modern Chinese tend to find white women beautiful. While I was a student in China, girls who wanted to impress me sometimes curled their hair and wore heavy makeup in the manner of girls they saw on American TV. And just last month, I traveled through China with my biracial niece and nephew, who often attracted crowds of gasping fawning photo-snapping Chinese folks (especially Chinese women); and though the Chinese generally are very fond of babies and toddlers, this was more than usual. Also, the bombardment of advertising images of glamorous sexy white women is getting more and more intense. So I don’t know how that all breaks down, but there’s something going on in there.

    Regarding India, I guess we could go back to the 100,000 verses of the Mahabharata for a clue. Doesn’t get more epic than the struggle for the throne between the Kauravas and the Pandavas; and the Pandavas are guided by Arjuna’s charioteer, who is in fact Krishna, the Dark One, the Enlightened One and incarnation of Vishnu, who in the climactic scene (the Bhagavad Gita) tells Arjuna to get over his reluctance to join in battle; after which the two sides engage in a bloodbath. From what I understand, in the caste system which developed, light-skinned brahmins and warriors were seen as the karmic descendants of the Pandavas, while dark-skinned Dhalits were untouchable; merchants were somewhere in the middle. Again, I can’t quite put it all together, but there’s something buried in there.

    Just a couple thoughts for the road.

    Peace.

  4. Thanks Kai. That’s some heavy stuff. I remember reading the Bhagavad Gita in high school – and the professor, somehow, managed to skip over that entire dimension.

    I suppose one of the more interesting connections is the linguistic bond between “European” languages and Sanskrit. In many respects, it is ironic that the alleged “seat of white culture” is not in Europe.

    I have a feeling that someone with more time than I have will eventually go back into the original German-British research on this and uncover some serious falsification or perhaps a serious conceptual error. I do know, though, that it won’t be John McWhorter. Thanks again.

  5. Great insights.

    I think you’re right, that there is some mechanism there having to do with european-ness. I think this tends to be small, but I wonder how big it is. In east asia, it’s truly mixed in with a greatly complex cultural soup of factors including class, region, and exposure to the West.

    I think there are “euro-philes” in asia, and I think there are bai-philes (white-lovers, if you will) in asia; the two sets intersect, but aren’t synonymous. Most chinese (in mainland and the proximate diaspora) seem to never think about white or non-east asians.

    I think that’s why when confronted with the different, they tend to seemingly overreact. There are some parts of China and Taiwan where I still get treated like a VIP, with cameras snapping, people wanting to shake my hand, and girls calling me ‘Ke-ai’ (lovely). In other places, where folks are more used to folks of the african phenotype and diversity in general (like Singapore, Malaysia, and the Major metropolitan hubs of China), I get no reaction at all, positive or negative. Which is cool.

    Another encouraging thing is that the chinese that are used to diversity are comfortable analogizing blacks with themselves. I was speaking with someone in Singapore, and out of the blue, he said that Singapore Chinese to Chinese are like African Americans to Africans. This may seem like a small point, but I think such a rationalization is a positive one.

    (One the topic at hand, I could never figure out why Japanese anime characters look like white people. Definitely some issues going on there.)

  6. You won’t believe how I stumbled upon this site, but that is not important. I’m just glad some people are engaged in this type of discourse. There is something much deeper going on regarding skin color. Something cosmic, I think. Most of the world is colorful, so why the love for lighter or whiter skin? Why is it pushed? Why is it emphasized. I heart the whole indoor/outdoor worker dichotomy. Is that the only reason? Hmm. What is even funnier is the love of the black male by white or lighter women. Where does that come from? Personally, I think we are going to figure all of this out one day and not be astonished at all. It is so important not to be brainwashed by the media and their obsession with the white female. I think it is a diversion, because most of the beautiful womein in the world, in my opinion, are the women with browner skin. But that’s my opinion. Actually, there is beauty across the cultures, but we just let the ones who have the power dictate to us how we should think and view our reality. It seems to me that you guys on this discussion board are a bit more liberated than that. Again, great discussion!

  7. Thanks for coming through Lynise. You’re always welcome. At the bottom of these questions about “beauty” are very real questions about power, genetic replication and sexism. On a simpler level, if I were a business man, I’d commodify blond, white “beauty” as well because of it’s statistical rarity. It is relatively inaccessible for most women – white or otherwise. If folks are silly enough to aspire to a Scandinavian and fictionalized ideal, then fine. The fact that this results in suicides, bolemia, anorexia and other ailments is merely collateral damage. Americans know this because they continue to support these industries and put their daughters (and sons) on altars to be sacrificed to mythical gods of perfection. Cha-ching.

  8. Good discussion. I appreciate the truth being told. The Beauty Industry shouldn’t be a tyrannical organization that invades and brainwashes society. Improving your looks and telling me how I should look or that white is beautiful is an opinion and wrong. I do appreciate your comments.

  9. Awesome thoughts guys…am glad i stumbled through onto this discussion and its reassuring that there are people who think for themselves….the corollaries drawn on the chinese and the indians are interesting….but gimme your opinion please – how do you feel asian women depict beauty for themselves? what about the men looking for their partners? why does one fall prey to the maketing gimmicks and brand names? so many questions in my mind to understand this in view of the fact that people are smart today……independent women with spending power

  10. Which “asian women” are you referring to? Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Thai, Iranian, Mongolian, Sri Lankan? There are many choices and many histories. Are you talking about Asian American women born and raised in the US?

    There is a scene in The Devil Wears Prada which sums up this question of intelligence and marketing. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean – if not check it out. You may never think of blue sweaters in the same way again.

  11. Yes, I believe history plays a huge part in this common occurence of Light vs. Dark. However, it boils down to the individual you have to come to terms with who you are and embrace your heritage. I am a woman of African Ancestry with dark skin and kinky hair, and I am very proud to be Black. These companies are European owned and operated they come to nations such as India, China, and Africa and promote their brand of beauty. It is up to us to take proud in ourselves and denounce these products and advertisements which teaches us to hate ourselves and favor Europeanized standards of beauty. I personally prefer darker skin pigmentations over light for obvious reasons. Why should I hate who I am when I am just as beautiful as any Caucasian woman. So many of us bleach our skins why they tan theirs and inject their lips with collagen so that it can be full. I believe all people are beautiful in their own unique way and you should just embrace your beauty and all the physical characteristics that makes your race special.

  12. The preference for white skin has very little to do with the influences of tradition or culture. The main reason that women want to have lighter skin is that light skin is a feminine trait and therefore will make them more attractive. This preference is rooted in biology rather than any kind of social prejudices.

    It would be a mistake to say that all races are equally attractive or that women of all races should embrace their own “unique” beauty. There is only one definition of beauty which is defined by our biology rather than our culture. Being unique does not make one beautiful.

  13. It would be a mistake to think your premise leads to your conclusions. I hear the proclamation, but would like to see the demonstration. I’m very interested in hearing the support for your position. Otherwise, thanks for sharing your opinion.

  14. I find that hard to believe…not that he wouldn’t do it, but that it looks like such a shabby job. If these pics are real, I be concerned on a lot of levels. I’m not going to read too much into it.

  15. So I’m guessing all that surgery that East Asians get to achieve “European” eyes has nothing to do with Caucasians either? And the blonde hair and blue/green/hazel contacts?

    In the past the idea may have been to look like a non-labourer but ideas on beauty do evolve and today the obsession with lighter skin has to do with the European/Caucasian ideal.

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