Sometimes, I feel like my skin is never the right colour. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many of my friends are on a constant quest to achieve a particular shade of epidermis. Whatever your race or situation, it’s often implied that there’s a “right” shade of skin to maintain, and it’s likely that you don’t have it.
How is it that something we’re supposed to be comfortable in has suddenly made us so self-conscious?
In Australia, we’re definitely encouraged to maintain that bronzed, beach babe look. Two of our favourite celebrities – Jennifer Hawkins and Lara Bingle – have their own self-tanning ranges. Almost every bride I know has had a spray-tan before the big day, with many subjecting their bridesmaids to a similarly golden fate.
Although I already have a skin tone that you could describe as “golden”, I sometimes get obsessed with having the perfect, fake tan. I’ll dutifully use my gradual self-tanner, or I’ll use a stinky, heavy-duty formula that’s guaranteed to make my husband say, “What’s that smell?”
While on a trip to Indonesia a few years ago, I noticed that many of the women there had skin tones which seemed artificial and strange. I have family who are Chinese-born Indonesian, so I’ve visited Indonesia several times. The women’s skin was an odd, ashy colour, as though they were all wearing the wrong colour of foundation or something. It was a sickly pallor. They were ethnically Chinese, like me, and I couldn’t figure out why their skin colour was so different to mine.
One day during my Indonesian trip, I was at the supermarket and I found a whole lot of shelves dedicated to skin-whitening products. Suddenly, I had my answer. The women surrounding me were trying to whiten and lighten their skin, using artificial means. I realised that perhaps my skin was the "wrong" colour in Indonesia.
Similarly, on a visit to India two years ago, I was struck by the huge number of ads for skin whitening treatments. So many Bollywood stars appeared in ads for skin whitening creams and tablets.
There are several reasons why different cultures may desire lighter skin. While some may point to colonisiation, Asian culture has actually favoured white skin for centuries.
"The feminine ideal during the Han period [206BC – 220AD) for women of the court was almost unearthly white, white skin… light skin equals beauty," Anne Rose Kitagawa, Chief Curator of Collections and Asian Art, and Director of Academic Programs at the University of Oregon, told Global Post.