By Naiem Yusuf
Photography by Aditi Lohe
Modeled by Stefanie Im, Elisa Kodama, Mahema Singh and Seema Korumilli
This article has been adapted for the web from our Flux Issue.
Growing up in Southeast Asia, I never truly knew what beauty was. All my life, I have been bombarded by ads of brown-skinned women whitening their faces to conform to European beauty standards. And I feel like no one has paid it any mind.
Skin bleaching, or skin lightening, happens all over the world—it is an epidemic deeply rooted in colorism. The sole purpose of skin lightening is to appear fairer in order to fit the socially constructed standard of beauty. It is a practice that is prevalent in South and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa, although there isn’t much media coverage or global scrutiny about it.
We all understand the concept of skin lightening, the act of using any kind of substance or treatment to physically lighten one’s skin tone. Yet, we don’t understand what drives its practice in Asia and how it differs from skin lightening in the West, although their origins are intertwined and connected.
Historically, light skin has brought up the same connotations. During the Victorian era, the age of powders and paint, European women followed in the footsteps of the Romans by painting their faces with lead. Lead paint provided temporary benefits of looking white, but prolonged use caused skin discoloration, hair loss and rotted teeth. In the 19th century, American women were willing to consume arsenic complexion wafers, a practice Queen Elizabeth was known to partake in. These wafers were literally toxic, but they got rid of freckles, pimples, and other facial impurities in the process. These women would essentially poison themselves out of a commitment to communicating purity and superiority in a time where the concept of race was being solidified.
In East Asia, white skin was seen as something that could only be attained by wealth. In the past, wealthier women could afford to stay indoors, avoiding more manual work and any way of getting a tan. In Southeast Asia, this gets a little more complicated. Our complex was built on the standards of the East, but really only solidified after we were colonized. We were made to feel inferior to the white skin that invaded us and forced to embody their beauty standards and ideas. Southeast Asians didn’t aspire to be white for superficial or cosmetic reasons, we aspired to attain the privilege that comes with being white.
Today, whiteness has become a symbol of beauty. Its practice and reach has grown to be even more insidious where products are marketed to lighten skin in ways that only seem benign and innocent. Commercialization plays to our need to be flawless by promoting whitening products’ effectiveness against acne, scarring and large pores. In many advertisements, the “after” picture presents a model not only with lighter skin, but with healthier, flawless looking skin. This not only further associates lighter skin with beauty, but it also equates dark skin with blemished, unhealthy and unwanted complexions.
We’ve evolved from poison to FDA-approved chemicals such as niacinamide, kojic acid and melanin inhibitors. While these do lighten skin, they have adverse effects like mild burning, itchiness and redness as it causes skin to thin and grow more sensitive to UV rays.
I grew up believing that it was wrong for me to be dark, and that I had to have lighter skin to be of value to society. I spent most of my teenage years using various whitening soaps and lotions in hopes of getting lighter. I grew accustomed to cleansing my face twice daily with Kojie San’s Kojic Acid soap and Eskinol’s Papaya Smooth White toner, prepping my skin with Cosrx’s Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence Review and moisturizing with the 3CE White Milk Cream. To my disappointment, none of this worked the way it was marketed to, the way I’d hoped it would, and I was left with the unhealthiest skin I’ve ever had. Instead of getting lighter, I’d just aggravated my acne and confused my already sensitive complexion. I was flaky and ashy and I looked sick. It’s safe to say I was devastated, but more importantly, I wondered: was I not meant for beauty?
For a long while, I didn’t understand the complexities that came with being a person of color without a genuine connection to my own culture. I lacked the opportunities to interact with a group of people with diverse values and perspectives and was stuck with romanticized ideologies perpetuated by local media that sought to belittle me.
I don’t hate myself for being brown anymore. I’ve accepted it as part of my being, something I’ve learned to love and something I’ve fought the uphill battle of trying to escape from. Unlearning beauty ideas that have been part of your country’s history is extremely difficult, but I no longer feel defeated when I look at myself in the mirror.