The proverb comes at me from unexpected places. It’s a bit cliché, and certainly old-fashioned, to say it straight, but it worms its way out in other phrases. I might hear it straight up from older women, or referenced behind a veil of translucent compliments from younger ones. It never fails to bother me. It’s 一白遮三醜 。
Literally translated, it means “one white hides three uglies”, or “if you have white skin, it will make up for three flaws” or, more bluntly, “white is beautiful”.
I usually hear it sneaking around behind a phrase rather than being said outright:
“Your skin is so pretty! I wish I had such white skin!”
“Why did you dye your beautiful golden hair red? You shouldn’t dye hair like that!”
“Your skin is so perfect!”
“White skin and blue eyes, oh!”
“I use all sorts of things to get my skin that color, and you have it naturally. It’s not fair!”
“If I had white skin and blue eyes, I’d have such a handsome husband too.”
Occasionally, a blunt-minded obasan will say it outright – “you are pretty, because one white hides three uglies!” (Uhhhh, thanks?)
I find this amusing and perturbing, because first of all, my skin is far from perfect. At 30, I still get acne to the point where I see a dermatologist. I can’t imagine many women want that, white skin or no. I have uneven tone and get undereye circles and redness around the nose. It’s not smooth at all. I have to get threaded every few weeks thanks to my Armenian genes. My hair is not naturally gold, it’s dishwater brown. Nothing spectacular.
The "...I'd have a handsome husband too!" line really gets me. I don't even know where to begin with this - the idea that good looks are the end all and be all, or that a good man is only attracted to beauty (of course physical appearance is a factor, but I find that chemistry has a lot more to do with the type of attraction that develops into real love), or that I am somehow deserving of this good-looking husband - and he is quite good-looking, thanks - because I'm white. That's just not OK.
It also unsettles me from a perspective of race – aren’t we beyond all that? Do we still not live in a world where all complexions can be beautiful? I don’t know about the women who made the comments above, but I live in that world and intend to continue doing so. To hear on numerous occasions that my features are to be envied not for their fineness but for their whiteness echoes just a little too much of “white is right” sentiment, even though the payers of these compliments are certainly not thinking that, at least not consciously. I can’t believe that those who pay such compliments really do have some deep-seated desire to look “more white”, but it’s hard to ignore – between whitening cream at Cosmed, whitening masks hawked on TV, the increasing popularity of freckle-removing laser procedures, the predilection for carrying umbrellas outside to shield oneself from the darkening effects of the sun and Jolin’s Butterfly cover last year in which she dons a sunset red wig, blue contacts (which are not too far from my natural eye color, thank you very much), has something done to her eyes on the computer to round them out and all-around makes herself look like some freakish semblance of Asian-trying-to-be-Caucasian, it’s hard not to wonder.
So when I find myself in this situation, shifting uncomfortably, wondering “really? Did they see my giant zit? I can’t believe my white hides that ugly!” I generally reply “Why? Your skin is beautiful too. In fact, I wish mine was clearer, and I never tan. I always turn red.”
“But who wants to tan?”
“Well…it’s not healthy, but I’d rather tan than burn.”
“Just use an umbrella outside!”
“Why not? You’ll stay so beautiful and white!”
“I just don’t think it’s that important to be white.”
There’s rarely a good answer to this – I wonder if the awkward silence that follows is the woman who’s just ravished praise upon my skin rethinking her position, or thinking I’m crazy, or thinking I can’t possibly be right, or just uncomfortable?
Should I have just said thank you, despite my own discomfort, and been done with it?
Sometimes joking works better – “美國人覺得一黑遮三醜呵！”
(“Americans think darker skin is attractive” – or exactly translated, “Americans think one black hides three uglies”, but it doesn’t mean black in exactly that sense).
“No no no, it’s white! One white hides three uglies!”
“No, seriously, that’s not how we see it. I’m not kidding!”
“Haha, you’re so funny! But really, in Taiwan we think it’s one white.”
“I know. I wish it was different, though.”
And yes, it bothers me. I don’t want to be put on some pedestal of beauty I don’t deserve – I’m straight-up average looking and happy with that. I don’t want to be admired for being white; that really bothers me. I don’t want being white to hide the extra pounds I’d rather not be carrying around or the zits that I wish would just stop already.
I want to see whitening creams be a thing of the past, and for women to be proud of their own gorgeous color. I want things like the Butterfly cover to be chuckled at, not emulated. I want women to realize that it’s not healthy to put bleach on your skin, and to realize that round eyes and fair skin are not the end-all and be-all of beauty.
I realize that plenty of women do realize this, and yet the comments keep coming. I really wish they’d stop.