The Concept of Beauty in Asia

Vichy2053007Beauty is universal, is what they say.

I beg to differ.

The concept of beauty varies in different parts of the world, and this was made very obvious when I returned to my hometown, Malaysia.  For here in Asia, beauty is to remain fair-skinned and pale. Not tanned and brown as is the revered image in Europe and other Western countries.

So do I adhere to this Asian concept of remaining “fair and lovely”? Noooo. I love sunbathing, swimming and looking healthy and tanned. My winter skin, a pale yellow, is as scary as Elvira, so unattractive. But here, I recall when after 10 days of sun-worshipping in Langkawi, several Datins and Puan Sris (high society ladies) enquired about my health, wondering if I was suffering from some horrible skin disease. No, I replied, this is my tan.  This was followed by silence and incomprehensible stares.

L'Oreal White Perfect

I suppose the amusing moment for me is when I decided to ask at a Clarins counter in KL for autobronzant (self-tan lotion). The poor sales assistant had no clue what I was talking about and just shook her head with a giggle. No she replied, why make skin darker? Indeed everywhere I see an amazing range of various whitening (also known as skin-lightening) products from L’Oreal, Clarins, Dior…

L'Oreal Paris bronzer L-2k9WPRosy-Pack-NEW-Ess-1

At first, I was quick to judge. Why are we marketing that Asian women should be pale and light skinned to be beautiful? But in fact, it’s not the fault of cosmetics companies at all, since they are simply responding to consumer demand. And the demand in Asia is for paler, lighter skin. It’s just logical business sense to offer what customers are asking for. It’s a cultural tradition. Yet Western journalists create controversy about race and colour against these whitening products as we so often see in magazines.

It’s clear that beauty is really in the eye of the beholder. Whether darker or lighter, I say it really doesn’t matter, and as long as you are comfortable in your own skin and feel good about yourself.

Michelle Yeoh, Laetitia Casta, Michelle Reis, Aishwarya Rai

Michelle Yeoh, Laetitia Casta, Michelle Reis, Aishwarya Rai

Journalists may try to instigate the issue that companies like L’Oreal are just further antagonizing the colour/racial issue, but to be honest, L’Oreal supports diversity. You look at L’Oreal Paris’ beautiful ambassadors and they range from the Latino (Eva Longoria), to the Chinese Asian (Gong Li), South East Asian, (Michelle Yeoh); Indian Asian (Aishwarya Rai) European blonde (Doutzen Kroez), European brunette (Penelope Cruz) to the African American (Beyonce). They range in colour and diversity as much as the product ranges available.

Eva Longoria

Eva Longoria



Doutzen Kroes

Doutzen Kroes

Penelope Cruz

Penelope Cruz

Gong Li

Gong Li

So am I on losing ground to fight for my belief to be tanned in Asia? Yes.

It’s true it’s preferable to be pale and fair-skinned in Asia but this PZ has chosen to defy all critics and remain as dark and tanned as she likes (of course with sensible sun protection!) – at least Frog likes me this way!



20 thoughts on “The Concept of Beauty in Asia

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more! I’m met with approving comments whenever I’m back home in Malaysia and looking fair (due to lack of sun and suitable suntanning conditions in London!)….and then subsequent disbelieving comments when I come back from a beach holiday in Perhentian. My old aunties just cant believe I would do this to my skin on purpose!

  2. Very thought-provoking Z, but then again so it everything you say 🙂 I thought the whole fair skinned thing was a reflection of social standing. Supposedly Asians who are brown/tan work in the fields or outside doing other labour-instensive work showing their social status (or lack thereof). Fair skinned women are supposedly more “privileged” – leading a life that allows them to either stay indoors or venturing outdoors only with umbrella in tow. This is how I understood the explanation from numerous Asian acquaintances.
    I personally think the sun is a wonderful thing – Vitamin D is good for you! And I wait all winter anxiously looking forward to ridding myself of my pasty white complexion. Let’s be honest, tan lines are also sexy 🙂
    Keep on inspiring darling with your entertaining writing style and refreshing choice of topics!

  3. Hi Kristi!
    You are absolutely 100% correct in the explanation! Asian women still go around with umbrellas to shade themselves away from the sun and the desire to be fair-skinned is exactly as you say, because of social standing. Thus, it is something that won’t go away any time soon.

    But I think our generation like Jules’ comment and others will agree that this age-old skin colour issue is actually rather annoying. People say that beauty is individual, but in Asia, it’s very much still dictated by society. We just have to be strong enough to fight against it and say to heck with it! 🙂

  4. when i came back from Maldives in April and was all tanned, i got the same “silence and incomprehensible stares” when some were asking what’s happened to my onced-fair skin!

  5. Hey Z believe it or not its the same here in Oman, the fairer one is the more they are perceived to be attractive. Many people (predominantly the older generation) don’t understand why I would actually WANT to tan!

  6. Dear PZ,

    As a naturally tanned person myself, I find the Asian idea of beauty naturally biased against me. *sigh* but I don’t really mind not fitting that description. But it’s almost impossible to find a moisturiser that DOESN’T attempt to make me pale. So I extend my hand in friendship to you, a fellow tanned person who doesn’t mind staying that way and even wants to enhance it *quelle horreur!*.


  7. I do workshops on grooming and colour harmony and i do agree with you on this issue. Women here esp in Malaysia tend to want to choose lighter shade foundations coz they want to be seen as fairer or “lebih cerah”. They compare their dark skin to the “more fortunate” fairskinned friends who can wear all sorts of colours. I believe its years of conditioning to make women here believe that “Fair” is “Lovely”. That is why I incorporate personal empowerment in all my grooming courses. Thanks for sharing on this topic and btw, you and your hubby are a gorgeous couple !


  8. There’s nothing beneficial about being tanned. You’ll pay for it when you are older, as your skin will show aging , perhaps even prematurely. If you really want to look good when you are middle age, you’d better smarten up and take care by staying in the shade.

    Vitamin D can be good in the sun,….but only for the first 15 or 20 minutes, without sunscreen. After that, you’re just getting burned.

    So it’s really up to you as to whether you want to protect your skin for later years and or simply live for the moment thinking you look good in your youth.

    Personally, I’d rather look younger when I am older, so am taking measures to look after myself. In fact, i ‘m 46 but loo, 30.

    So think about, be smart.

  9. I lived in Germany for a year and been exposed to the beauty standard in Europe – tanned skin.

    The bottom line is “Grass is always greener on the other side” and we always want something that we don’t have! Sunlight is so scarce in most Europe/western countries that the only way to get tan is during summer, or flying to sunny places like Greece/ Spain to get healthy tan. So it’s regard as luxury thing to do and to have! Also a social status too!

    And because they don’t get sunlight as much as in South East Asia, where sunlight are aplenty and throughout 365 days, they want to have it! And we, in Asia, doesnt get snow or winter, and the only way for us to have that is probably living in 4 season/winter countries, not very affordable choice for everyone too! So we have the desire, to be fair!

    Do I want to be tanned to be stand out from the rest of them in Asia and to show that I’m different ? No! Because I know how sun does more harm to the skin than good, premature aging, skin cancer etc. I wont shy away from sun or to be under a umbrella from 5 minutes walking outside, but I always make sure I can good sun protection. I have naturally fair skin, but I do not want to tan myself under harmful tan light or sun just because the name of vanity and be ignorance of the harmfulness that its associated!

  10. asian women lighten their skin for the same reasons americans try to look tanned- to appear to be somebody of high class. In the Philippines like skin shows someone who can afford to be indoors, not working outside doing manual labor. In the US, most people work indoors already giving them pale skin, thus tanned skin symbolizes someone who can afford to to vacation and relax hence the tanned look. Regardless, both skin whitening and darkening have side effects. a lot of whitening creams have ingredients like mercury that poison women, and being in the sun too much, or using tanning beds can cause skin cancer. nothing’s perfect.

  11. I’ve always admired women who could just be happy in their own skin and with their own bodies. Dark skin, light skin, big boobs, small boobs: what does it really matter? If I like you then I like the you that you are NOW, not the you that you think you should be after buying into the beauty industry’s vision of who you should be just so they can sell more products to increase profits. My wife and I compare our skin tones from time to time. She is Malay brown and I am German/Canadian pink. I love the contrast between us! Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) is what it’s all about to me…

  12. I completely agree George. People tend to like what is standard in the fashion. Asians like pale skin so they bleach it up ( these chinese models are mixed though, but they bleach it up in avarage) , whites already are ultra pales so it’s boring as hell… So we bleach it down (tan), and blacks tend to like very dark ’till tanned people (mixed blacks -latins, hispanics, brasilliams, somalians, caribbeans, artificial tan and etecetera). That’s kind a cicle.

  13. Hey peeps,

    You guys are absolutely right about the lack of skin care products in Malaysia which have no “skin-whitening” in it. Just a thing to point out though, although L’Oreal does have a wide range of products catering to different skin tones not all the tones are found over here. Most of the tones available in Malaysia that I have seen anyway, are catered towards a fairer skinned consumer base.

    Besides the whole job or status thing playing a part in defining skin tone; I personally feel that media plays an important role in influencing women of all ages today. We grow up watching Hollywood and Bollywood on TV where the main characters are mostly of a fair skin tone. Even the African-American, Indian or Latin actors have a fairer shade of dark skin. I’m not generalizing and saying all the actresses are so but its just my observation that many are that way. Also, lets not even talk about other countries, in Malaysia itself many of the female celebrities on television and in commercials are of similar skin tones.

    Young people and women look up to these celebrities and want to be as beautiful as them. Then you have the advertisements in magazines and billboards. Fair skinned models advertising a skin whitening product. I mean how much fairer can you get? Or a billboard with three women of three different races but having an almost similar skin tone.

    Its a scary thing for me personally. I’m not saying that everyone should run out there and get a tan because the heat in Malaysia can be scorching hot nowadays. But its good to go out in the sunlight and not be afraid of “turning black”. Like one of the comments said, a little vitamin D is good for us. =) However, its becoming more apparent that more people are talking about this issue and there is a change coming. =) Women should be proud of their skin tone whether its Caramel, Mocha, Milk, Dark Chocolate, Milo, Teh Tarik, Kopi-O or Nescafe colored and own it! =)

    So yup, just my two cents.

  14. I agree with the fact that people are always going after what they don’t have. If you have fair skin you desire to have tan skin because that is what is potrayed as beauty in Europe nowadays. In America being tan makes you look like you can afford to go to a nice country with a warm climate to relax in the sun. Also, I personally feel the people with natural colour are by far the most blessed. They don’t have to worry about turning pale from staying indoors for too long. They don’t have to always remember to apply sunscreen to prevent skin cancer or painful sunburn. For some reason people born with natural color just seem to age better than people that are forcing to get tans to get a little colour. I am not advocating for “darker skin is better” I am just saying that I personally believe that they have more of an advantage anywhere that they go in the world despite the climate. I don’t think that colouring should determine your social status or how beautiful you are. Colour is something that you have absolutely no control over, you are born with it or your not born with it. Determine someone’s beauty based upon your preferences in a person. I don’t think that pale skin makes someone beautiful and I don’t think coloured skin makes someone beautiful. I think of it like this. When you get married at twenty-five, you are at the peak of your youth and beauty. You marry this really, what you consider to be beautiful, girl and you are marrying her solely based on looks. Fifteen years later when she begins to lose the collagen and elasticity in her skin, she just isn’t attractive anymore. Do you want her? No. If you were to marry the girl that your culture may not define as “beautiful” but she is what you like in a girl and she is most compatible with you….. Fifteen years later when she begins to age you will still love her and still feel that she is beautiful despite what your culture deems you to believe. So forget about the colour of your skin and just find beauty within someone’s personality. If people would do that, believe me, the world would be a better and happier place. Beauty is within the person, it is not in the colour of their skin.

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