The North Star Project, Summer Report Number Six, Tianjin, China
By Erin Monroe
Tianjin, China Update 3: Whitening
I'd never seen anyone use an umbrella when it wasn't raining outside--until I came to China. I didn't think there was any other use for umbrellas, but I've since learned otherwise. Many Chinese women hold lacy umbrellas to block the sun as they stroll down the sidewalk. The idea is to protect their skin from too much exposure to the sun. While I too understand the importance of wearing sun block to protect your skin, there is a different motive for blocking the sun in China. Here, lighter skin indicates that the person does have the status of person who works outside. White skin is perceived as sophisticated and beautiful and this notion is apparent everywhere.
Last week I went to the grocery store to buy some lotion. Walking down the hygiene aisle, I only saw products labeled as "whitening body soap" and "whitening lotion." In the U.S. the only whitening products in the store are for teeth. I wanted to find regular generic lotion, so I went to another store which had a similar selection. At the third store, a small convenience store, I finally found a little bottle with the English description "body lotion".
The signs are everywhere. Literally and figuratively--besides the tacit belief that lighter is more beautiful, advertisements on billboards and on TV enforce this perception. Makeup, clothing, and hair models especially are either light-skinned Chinese people or Caucasian people. In America, we often see commercials and movies and advertisements with a mixture of races. For example, on the cover of a American university brochure, there may be three smiling students of all different races. I used to think this seemed so forced, and while the intentions are good, I didn't think they were always an accurate description of the school. However, I now appreciate the willingness to show different races with different colored skin, sharing the cover of a magazine or the surface of a billboard. It shows onlookers that people of all races can. . . fill in the blank. People of all races can go to that university, wear that makeup brand, wear those designer clothes, use that shampoo, and look beautiful.
I often question the reasons behind the idea that lighter is better. Is it because Western culture, like American media and products, are spreading to Asia at a rapid pace? For example, in movies, do the Caucasian women typically represent the romantic interest and are the Asian woman underrepresented in film altogether? If these ideas hold some truth, then why isn't American culture as heavily influenced by Chinese culture, appearances, media? Do the two countries not have a reciprocal relationship in this aspect?
I've never thought of light-skin as more beautiful than any other. Regardless of the class and socioeconomic statuses commonly associated with being Caucasian, I didn't dwell on the fact that anyone would want to emulate another ethnicity. My identity, whether I want it to be or not, is engrained in what I look like. Looks are how people perceive you when they first meet you and I believe most people care about appearance more than they admit. For this reason, I can't say "Why would they lighten their skin? Beauty is such a superficial thing!" For so many, admittedly I include myself in this category, beauty is not something a transient desire, like wishing the rain would stop, or hoping that traffic gets better. Appearance is part of our identities, and people tacitly accept this and constantly try to change their looks (clothes, hair, weight, and now skin color) to fit their own perception of beauty--however they may define it. Still, it stings to see someone so unsatisfied with their appearance that they would alter something as huge as the color of their skin.
I'm getting used to this idea with every umbrella I see and every stare I get walking down the street. Still, I don't accept it. I don't believe that lighter skin is more beautiful, and a twinge of sadness washes over me when someone is unsatisfied with the way they naturally look. I do not know how to change the perception that lighter skin is more beautiful and with that realization, my heart becomes a little heavier.
For all of the North Star Project Summer Reports, see HERE
The North Star Project: Collaboration between The Middle Ground Journal Student Interns, The College of St. Scholastica, and North Star Academy 8th Grade Global Studies Classes, 2013-2014 School Year Summer Reports.
Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
This summer we will re-tool and re-design the collaborative program, drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This summer The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their brief dispatches here throughout the summer, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.
Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, June, 2013
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal's not-for-profit educational open-access policy.