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Who's the fairest of them all? How about, who cares?

Alyssa-Claire Filippi


Kuala Lumpur  /  Mon, August 19, 2019  /  03:01 pm
Who's the fairest of them all? How about, who cares?

The conception of equalizing fair skin with beauty is harmful for many. (Shutterstock/BLACKDAY)

Growing up in Southeast Asia subliminally conditioned me to believe that fair skin was the only shade of skin color that was beautiful. From the lack of diversity in local cosmetics and fashion campaigns to the absurd advertisements about skin-whitening products to the backhanded comments made about individuals with darker skin tones in social settings – it comes as no surprise that many people, in this region share this same sentiment.

This ideology is referred to as “colorism,” which Evelyn Nakano Glenn, a graduate school professor at the University of California Berkeley, refers to as “the preference for and privileging of lighter skin and discrimination against those with darker skin".

Although this deeply rooted mindset dates back to colonial times, due to Western influences on the perception of beauty and in the media, our capitalistic society has monetized this obsession through advertisements by using fair Asians or Caucasian models for local cosmetics and fashion advertisements in Southeast Asia, as opposed to darker skin-toned models. Over time, this has affected peoples’ perceptions and opinions about this idea.

Furthermore, a comprehensive report by Global Industry Analysts estimates that the global market for skin-lightening products is projected to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024. The report further states that the Asia-Pacific region “represents the largest and fastest-growing market worldwide with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.5 percent over the analysis period". The growth in this region is associated with “the continued prevalence of colorism in most Asian communities”.

Read also: 50 shades of beige: Foundation and our obsession with fair skin

The classic skin-whitening advertisements portray individuals with darker skin tones as those facing failure and depression. Queue the introduction of a whitening product, and several shades later, this same individual is seen thriving and prosperous.

One example of this was a Thai advertisement for skin-lightening pills, with a tagline saying “whiteness makes you a winner”. In this advert, a Thai celebrity is seen associating the success of her career to her fair complexion, and if not maintained, she will be replaced and become a “faded star”. The since-deleted video sparked outrage among many viewers on social media, which shows a slow but existing decline in this opinion.

In social settings, it is not uncommon to hear comments made about people’s skin tones and individuals measuring a person’s beauty relative to the shade of their skin.

This is by no means to generalize every single person, but it is merely to point out that it has created an underlying trend in the definition of the beauty ideal in Southeast Asia. The trend can be further seen through the increase in the skin whitening, lightening and brightening culture in Southeast Asian countries. In contrast, the same cannot be said in many Western countries where the self-tanning, spray tanning and sunbathing cultures are so prevalent.

Research conducted by the iPrice Group further validates that this craze is widespread in Southeast Asia. iPrice holds catalogs for millions of products from numerous major e-commerce platforms across Southeast Asia, including IndonesiaMalaysiaSingapore, the PhilippinesVietnam and Thailand. Based on this vast catalog, iPrice finds that there is a significantly higher number of products that have been tagged with the keyword "whitening" with over 204,000 products, as opposed to the word "tanning" with over 7,000 products. This shows that the availability of whitening products is significantly higher than that of tanning products in the Southeast Asian market; this is likely due to high consumer demands for whitening products and a lack of demand for tanning products.

What is so concerning about this topic is that the Asian obsession with fair skin is so unhealthy in every sense of the word.

A preliminary study conducted by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) about skin-lightening practices amongs female students in Malaysia reveals that these women are well aware of the dangers and risks associated with the use of skin-lightening products and are even able to name the ingredients that are banned from said products. However, the study also uncovers that these women are still willing to use these products at their own risk as they believe that the pros (i.e. the “self-satisfaction”) outweigh the cons (i.e. the detrimental long-term effects on their health).

This is a perfect example of how this unhealthy obsession is marginalizing individuals with darker complexions, causing them to lose confidence and pressuring them to aspire to an unrealistic beauty ideal.

So, what does this mean for me?

Although it is unlikely that this perception will change anytime soon, it is important for consumers to be socially aware of these unintentional biases and question the reasons why we may have these perceptions. It is only once we start questioning these beauty ideals that we are able to make a significant change and fight against discrimination. More specifically, it is important to challenge both cosmetic and fashion companies to have more inclusive images for advertisements in order to create a more holistic perception of beauty in hopes that our current and future generations will realize that beauty does not have one exact definition.

With the rise of millennials and a more progressive outlook, there is a new hope for these perceptions to change and for people to embrace their beauty, no matter what shade of skin tone they have. One example that seeks to fight against colorism is the Dark is Divine campaign, founded by Fatima Lodhi in 2013.

The Dark is Divine campaign celebrates diversity and fights for anticolorism throughout numerous countries in Asia, with an overarching goal to “transform Asia, Africa and other regions [...] to the point that someone’s appearance or skin color ultimately has no importance”, hence further emphasizing the importance of looking beyond someone's skin color. (dev/mut)


The writer is an intern at the iPrice Group. iPrice Group is an aggregating platform operating in seven nations across Southeast Asia, namely Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.