Monday, May 16, 2011

On Beauty

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.

Me, but it's a better than average photo of me, and I'm wearing makeup. Trust me, between the craters, blackheads, oil and zits, my skin is not all that.

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.

An album cover featuring Jolin - rather than "beautiful", I see this as being a bit freakish. Unnatural. Who is she trying to be?

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.


Drew Triebe said...

you've seen all the shapewear and such. Taiwan is obviously obsessed with image.

There are plenty of white guys here who adore asian looks.

Its you want what you cant have. and maybe a little bit of genetic diversity.
fact: women/men who have different antigens in their blood have better smelling body odour. and vice versa. so people who would result in stronger offspring smell nice.

Kath said...

It's a bit embarrassing when I'm trying to have a conversation in the local park with some people and one woman keeps banging on about my skin being amazing. I mean, thanks for the compliment but once was enough. Saying it 35 times in one conversation makes me nervous that you're going to skin me and keep it for yourself!

I really wish that all women the world over weren't always being told that what they are isn't good enough and that we could all just wholeheartedly embrace ourselves the way we are, flaws and all. Maybe this is a bit utopian and unrealistic but hey. A girl can dream, can't she?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

K - yeah, it's pretty clear that there are tons of white guys who like Asian looks - that's not the point (that'd be a pretty obvious observation to make, honestly)...the point is the Asian women themselves who don't like their own looks. What any random man - white or not - thinks is only tangentially relevant (in that so many women, most women I'd say, to some degree consider their appearance through the lens of what men will think of it, or women if they swing that way). What really matters is what THEY think. And they seem to think white = better (so clearly they're not basing it on what they think white men like, which renders it completely irrelevant).

Kath - I'm with you. I would love to see a world in which no woman was told she wasn't good enough, that she'd be better if she changed her appearance somehow, or that another skin tone/hair type/eye shape or color/body type/nose/boobs/ass/ankles whatever is "better" than what she's got. Sure, we are never going to get rid of notions - some universal, some cultural - of what constitutes "attractive", and women suffer the brunt of that far more than men, as women are expected to be more physically pleasing than men generally. But a world in which we recognize that not everyone has to follow the ideal, and "there's an ass for every seat" - that you are worthy of friendship and respect regardless of how you stack up to the ideal and worthy of love as well (and that there is someone out there who will be attracted to you as you are, so don't worry)...wouldn't that be great? A woman can dream I guess.

In that world I'd like to see women treat eating and exercise as means to a HEALTHY end, not means to a THIN end (and a society that recognizes that having a few curves is great, too). Women who treat makeup, hair styling, fashion etc. as things they do for themselves, so they can feel they are expressing how they would like to look...not basing it on some notion of what men prefer (I think the men would learn to deal).

Again, a woman can dream.

I've decided that I already live in this world and I act as such. I decide what to eat and how much to exercise for ME. If I wear makeup at all it's for ME. I choose clothes I like, and do my hair as I like, and if someone has a problem with that or thinks I'm not good enough - or tries to send me subtle hints that I'm not good enough, not thin enough, not feminine enough, not made up enough...they can stuff it up their butt. If I don't like something about my appearance, it's because *I'm* unhappy with it, not because I'm afraid others will judge me.

It's not easy pretending to live in a world that doesn't exist - we are all judged on our appearance every day and most of us are found wanting - but it seems to be working just fine.

And yeah, one skin compliment is fine (albeit a bit ridiculous considering my problem skin!)...after that, just stop already. I don't mind the eye and hair compliments, although I wish people would stop saying I have "gold" hair when I don't.

blobOfNeurons said...

I think most people don't realize that it's the "brightness" (luster) of the skin that matters not the whiteness.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Except, blob, that my skin is not particularly "bright" (it looks OK enough in that photo, rest assured that without makeup it is no such thing, and I rarely wear makeup). It's white, but it's not "bright". So I can't really agree with your statement. If my skin were what it is otherwise, but not as white, I wouldn't be getting those compliments.

Catherine Shu said...

It's definitely the whiteness. Even Asian-American women who have never been to Asia and have been mostly cosseted from Asian media and beauty standards get shit about having tans or being too dark from relatives.

The "brightness" is supposed to be part and parcel of having skin like a lustrous white pearl. Otherwise, a woman with a caramel skin tone would be able to load up on glitter powder and just call it a day, instead of having to hear about how "coarse" and "manly" she looks.

When my brother was little, someone said to my Mom "it's a good thing your little girl is white and your son is dark, not the other way around!" Well, as fate (and our indoor work and lack of recreational time) would have it, we're both pasty white now! Ha ha.

Like I said on your FB, I don't enjoy compliments about my pasty skin because it feeds into and reinforces a system of classist thinking that is just dumb. At the same time, I would love a tan, which is of course a remnant of yet another culture's classism.

Catherine Shu said...

I wanted to add that I disagree that Jolin Tsai's album or the cosmetic measures she used are necessarily indicative of a desire to appear "white." If you are an Asian person, the only non-surgical ways to quickly change your appearance dramatically is to lighten or curl your hair, or stick in colored contacts (hers are the pupil-enlarging ones Lady Gaga wore in her "Bad Romance" video. They are currently trendy, which is bad because they can damage your eyes).

I think the cover is more indicative of classism, like I mentioned before. Light hair = money and time to spend in a salon. Light skin = not a laborer (loaded with meaning in a society where the economy was still underpinned by agriculture until recently).

On a related note, Amei (who is of Aboriginal descent) constantly gets her skin lightened in photos. That makes me think that any ethnic dynamic in Taiwanese beauty standards is not so much Asian women wanting to achieve whiteness, but women wanting to achieve an (idealized and fictional) version of Han Chineseness.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

You might have a point, Catherine...although to me, the bigger, bluer eyes, fake lashes and light hair, all being characteristics of being white, sure look like an attempt at whiteness (although her skin is noticeably *not* lightened...I've seen photos of Jolin looking whiter than she does on that album cover. So there's that).

Thing is, if you're white you basically have the same options to dramatically change your appearance: you can dye your hair (we do have more colors available, though, without always having to bleach, and we can go darker), get an extreme haircut/perm, put in fake lashes and colored contacts or do something dramatic with clothing or makeup. The only difference is that we have a few more color options.

If it were just the colored contacts, or just the rounded eyes, or just the hair, I'd be more inclined to agree that that cover was not about "looking white" but all three just strike the wrong chord with me. I guess we can agree to disagree on that!

But yes, you're right that round eyes and bright, white skin are also Han Chinese ideals...although I wonder how much of that was Western-influenced. Nowadays when you see depictions of classic Chinese beauty, it's more Lin Zhiling than Zhang Ziyi (I happen to think that Zhang Ziyi is prettier, even if, as one local friend noted, "she's a bitch and she slept with so many men to get her roles!" (I can't confirm whether that's true). Lin Zhiling looks, if you ask me, pretty in a very pedestrian way.

But if you go back farther than that, the "bright white skin like a lustrous pearl" was still considered a marker of beauty, but more Asian features, especially in the eyes, were also accepted as classically beautiful.

As such, I do have to wonder if the round eyes thing was a later addition to the "beauty ideal".

Catherine Shu said...

The thing about white people making "adjustments" to their hair or eye color is that they have a much wider natural spectrum to work with and no one accuses them of wanting to be another race. If a white woman dyes her hair black, people don't automatically assume it's because she wants to be Asian... it's because she wants to have dark hair (or be Goth or something, even though, for all we know, she did want to look Asian). Same if she bleaches her hair and so on. A white woman who pops in purple or blue contacts over her brown irises isn't accused of wanting to look even whiter. Frivolous maybe.

I bring this up because I've been accused of wanting to look more white just because I messed with my hair color or pondered buying contacts, usually by other Asian people. I mean, I'd like more leeway to mess with my appearance before it becomes a racial issue. Otherwise, I'm stuck with the same three shades of hair dye (black, dark brown, chestnut brown).

I also don't see the round eye thing so much as women wanting to look white, as wanting to look like children (maybe white children, to be sure). It's an example of neoteny, the same aesthetic idea behind Disney princesses and anime characters. They want the soft, fluffy hair, smooth, unmarked pale skin and big, round, sparkling eyes of a little girl. That, plus fake high-pitched voices and the infantile clothing styles, are a style cliche that scream "I'm a helpless little girl teeheehee, take care of me." The extra creepy and upsetting thing is it's not just about looking like little girls, it's about looking like *sexualized* little girls. I wonder if they ever look at photos of Jon Benet Ramsay for styling tips.

Having said that, yes, I am sure there are a lot of Asian women out there who want to achieve a more "Caucasian" look, otherwise you would not see so many white models used even in brands that are marketed exclusively in Asia, or the wanton abuse of eyelid tape.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

For me I think it's a combination that sets off the "who are you trying to be?" alarm.

Colored hair? No prob.

Eye-enlarging contacts? Creepy to me, but no prob.

Colored contacts? Sure.

Whitening creams and makeup? Alright.

All of the above together? ...I start to wonder.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

that said, you do have a good point that a white woman can do all sorts of things to herself and nobody will accuse her of trying to look like she's another race (although I could see a situation in which black, straightened hair, elongated kohl eyeliner and Asian-inspired clothes might raise a few eyebrows, and doing cosmetic things to try and look more Indian is somewhat more common, such as going to India and wearing saris, getting mehndi, putting on bindis and using kohl, though that seems to be more of a "cultural enthusiasm" thing than an "I want to look Indian" thing).

blobOfNeurons said...

At the time I meant that the people who are go on and on about white skin don't seem to realize that 'bright' smooth skin will always look good, regardless of color. So if they want to look good, they should work on keeping their face smooth and moistured.

(Of course fair skin will naturally be brightest cause well ... it reflects more light.)

Finally, after some thought I realized that color might also matter in a different way for some people. I think the reason some people are so attracted to Caucasian skin might be because of the undertones. In general, Caucasian skin is much more pinkish than Asian skin, while the latter is more yellowish.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Tell that to the mothers and aunties who openly criticize darker skin in the younger female generation...because they haven't gotten the memo, and neither have all the women who buy the whitening creams (bleach does not "brighten" your face, if anything it may temporarily lighten your skin but it'll also make it duller. It's bleach FFS). You may think (correctly) that smooth, glowing skin always looks best but don't count on the women who want whiter skin to be agreeing with you. It could be partly because of the undertones but really I think it's mostly the fact that it's pale (I have uneven skin tone and yes, I do have pink/peach undertones but you'd hardly know it).

Oh, and "keep your skin moisturized"? You do realize that facial moisturizer is the devil for some women, right? I've tried it - figuring "if I add moisturizer my skin won't feel it needs to produce oil to make up for dryness" - and it just made me oilier than the Gulf of Mexico*. As for getting "smooth" skin, skincare regimens, products and procedures have been charging us through the nose for that for generations and very little of what's on offer actually works. There's a point at which you don't get to decide whether or not your skin is smooth or "bright".

*sorry, I have no taste.

blobOfNeurons said...

There's a point at which you don't get to decide whether or not your skin is smooth or "bright".

Haha, I'm well aware of that. I guess I mean that's what they should be aiming for (or wishing for, as if wishing does anything).

P.S. I guess I said "keep your skin moisturized" probably because I was influenced by the regime where he states

Some people say, “I have oily skin, so I’m not going to moisturize,” but this is not a reason to avoid moisturizing. When you moisturize, especially with a moisturizer which contains jojoba oil, your oil production will come under control much better than if you avoid moisturizing. Moisturizing twice daily, every day, is an essential step to getting clear. This has been proven over many years and hundreds of thousands of Regimen users.

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

Well, I'm not in the habit of endorsing advice from a man about what women should aim for (I believe that what we should aim for beauty-wise is whatever we are happy with ourselves), but I do take that in the spirit it was intended.

As someone with oily skin who has tried the whole "moisturizing to keep oil under control" thing...yeah, no. That's bullshit. Moisturizer only makes it worse. The production of oil does not lessen - there was an article recently discussing how it was actually genetic and not related to how moist your skin already is.

Stefanie said...

First of all, I'm so glad to stumble across your blog, Jenna!

Thank you so much for posting this! Day after day, I get embarrassing comments from random older women on the MRT and even at crosswalks lavishing wonder and praise on my skin color. I don't even know what to do anymore except say thank you and walk away.

What's worse is when I have young girls in my classes who say they wish their skin was lighter because their skin is not pretty. These girls are breathtaking, yet even their mothers comment that their skin is 'ugly.'

It's incredibly sad. The best I can do as their teacher and a fellow woman is reassure them that they are beautiful girls and tell their critics to shove it!

AA said...

I am a fifty year old Chinese female. Chinese females (and males) have been looking up to the white person's appearance as the ideal since at least one hundred years ago. Perhaps it stems from an inferiority complex developed from its tortured history with "white" European nations in the 19th and 20th centuries, during which they always ended up the victor. They covet not only white skin, which is coincidentally held in high regard in Chinese culture. Chinese women have for years wanted to trade in their small noses, small eyes, the single eyelid folds, small stature etc., all of which are characteristically Chinese physical features. The phenomenon you observe with white skin is just the tip of the iceberg. Ironically (or not), this mindset is more pervasive in Chinese people who have had less exposure to Western culture, and those are the people you would find in the parks I guess.