I was ten years old when I first saw a beauty commercial on TV that left a lasting impact on me. It showed a girl leading a miserable life, all because she had dark skin. People dismissed her ideas at work, she couldn’t get the attention of the guy she liked, and nothing seemed to be going well for her. Then, another girl, who was visibly glowing, happy, and clearly had fairer skin introduced her to a whitening cleanser. Lo and behold, her saviour had arrived. The protagonist turned five shades lighter and strutted down the street with confidence in a pretty dress. Her life became glamorous -- her ideas were accepted at work, she was praised for her brilliance, and her crush asked her out on a date. She lived happily ever after.
As a young girl who had dark skin herself, that commercial left a lingering impact on me. It told me that having fair skin meant having a good life, for with it came beauty, attention, and success. It told me that if I wanted a transformational life like hers, I had better get myself that whitening cleanser. Of course, at the time, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the commercial at all. If anything, it solved my problem. I wanted to be like that girl, and so prompted my very first purchase of a whitening product.
But let’s rewind and talk about why I became so conscious about my skin colour in the first place. This insecurity with having dark complexion began a few years before seeing this commercial. Since I was born, my natural skin tone has been yellow-ish brown (close to the shade of honey). My childhood was filled with fun sports and outdoor activities that by the time I was nine years old, I had turned a much darker shade of brown (think: the colour of a chestnut). I didn’t think anything of it. I was enjoying being active, being a kid. But to the people around me, my skin colour was apparently something I should be concerned with, and so began the painful reminders.
At family gatherings, my relatives would give passing remarks on how much darker I had gotten since the last time they saw me. They would say it was a shame that this was how I appeared as a girl. That I looked like one of the boys instead of my dainty, beautiful, fair-skinned female cousins. They told me that I should try to avoid being in the sun too much; otherwise, no boy would be attracted to me. Yes, these were legitimate concerns directed at a nine year old.
The boys at school would compare me to my lighter, fairer girl friends, who they claimed were prettier because they were “putih” (“white”). I would be made fun of and called “hitam” (“black”) in the most insulting manner. I was told to fix myself and to stay out of the sun if I wanted to be pretty like the other girls.
It didn’t help that the local media and advertisements I consumed were filled with people who didn’t look like me. At the mall, I would see advertisements by fashion and cosmetic brands displaying fair-skinned models to advertise their products (most weren’t even Malaysian, but European or light-skinned East Asian models). On TV, whitening cosmetic brands made commercials using actresses who were fair-skinned in real life, but painted them dark just so they could turn white in the commercial. On magazines, celebrities were praised for having “kulit putih” (“white skin”) and asked to share their secrets so their fans could be just as beautiful as them. As a kid who didn’t properly know how to make sense of any of this, I defeatedly registered it as, “I am ugly because I am dark”.
Thus, from a young age, beauty had made it to the forefront of my life’s mission -- in particular, getting rid of my dark complexion. Desperate to fit in and be considered beautiful, I would religiously use whitening facial products and felt incredibly happy when my skin started getting fairer. Unfortunately, this meant less time playing outdoors so I could maintain the newly achieved shade. I remember reducing the time I spent at the playground to stay indoors instead, missing out on all the fun my friends were having.
At school, I wouldn’t participate in outdoor activities as much anymore because I didn’t want to be under the sun. During sports competitions, I wouldn’t do my best because I would be worried about how much sun I was being exposed to. If I spent some time outside, I would return home and rush to the mirror to check if I had turned darker. If I did, I would feel disappointed that the effort I had spent to obtain just a shade lighter was completely ruined.
It wasn’t until I was twelve years old when our family moved to Hanoi, Vietnam when I had a change in perspective about my skin colour and beauty standards. The Vietnamese themselves had their own definition of beauty -- a slim and petite figure, silky black hair, and of course, milky white skin. On a hot summer day, they would cover themselves up in long sleeves and hats to prevent their skin from getting darker. Celebrity ads would be heavily photoshopped to make them appear much lighter than they were in real life. At the mall, it would be commonplace to see whitening products lined up on the shelves and advertised on poster ads. It was no different than what I was exposed to in Malaysia. However, while the local surroundings made very clear what they considered as beautiful, the international community I was surrounded by at school enforced an entirely different definition of beauty.
In this new environment, I was surrounded by people from all around the world. This meant that I was exposed to all kinds of cultures and ways of thinking, but most importantly, a unique way of looking at beauty. My friends were from everywhere -- New Zealand, Denmark, Vietnam, Malaysia, and more. But the interesting part was, even though their passports were of these countries, they themselves were kids who grew up in an international setting in other foreign countries, due to the nature of their parents’ career, as I did. They were in their little bubbles of diversity and in these settings, there wasn’t one dominant beauty standard. They grew up in a melting pot where they saw that beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, and colours. This was their default understanding, and their view on beauty started to grow on me.
My Danish friend, for example, lived in Tanzania until she was fourteen and was accustomed to seeing black-skinned people around her. She didn’t think they were any less beautiful, despite she herself and the majority of people in Denmark being on the opposite end of the colour spectrum. My Malaysian friend, who grew up in New York, was amidst the Hispanics and Blacks whose skin colours were darker than hers. Although skin colour does not go unstereotyped in America, they shared with her their personal battles with self-love, allowing her to become confident in her own skin and reinforcing that every difference was beautiful.
As nice as it was to be surrounded by people who saw that beauty comes in all shades, I still carried the insecurity of having dark skin. It wasn’t something that went away just because I was in a different environment, or because my friends told me I was beautiful. I was indoctrinated at a very young age to believe that I was ugly because of my skin colour. Regardless of what community I was in, I was determined to “fix myself” so I continued persuading my mum to purchase whitening creams for me.
It wasn’t that I was unaware of the harmful side effects of using these products. I had heard about a case of whitening cream gone wrong, where a woman who used it had a patch of skin on her face burn and scar. I learned that whitening creams typically contain extremely toxic ingredients such as hydroquinone, corticosteroids, and mercury. The possible risks of using products with these ingredients include scarring, thinning of the skin, organ damage, and even abnormalities in newborn babies if used during pregnancy. But this didn’t stop me. I was still obsessed with meeting a standard of beauty that I had been convinced of since childhood that even claims of hazardous ingredients had no effect on me.
A couple of years went by of me diligently applying whitening products until I got to high school and was introduced to something that I loved more than having fair skin. Basketball started off as something casual I played with friends after school, but I soon grew to love the sport. So much so that I eventually decided to try out for the school team. In order to make the team, I had to attend many practice sessions which were held on the outdoor court that wasn’t covered by a roof. In other words, I had to play in the sun. I didn’t think this would be too much of a problem because I had an army of whitening products at home that I thought could always fix me right up.
Except, it was a problem.
After just a few training sessions, I had gotten much, much darker. Despite my commitment to a full routine of whitening cleanser, toner, moisturiser, and sunscreen, I would still get extremely tanned. At this point, my skin colour was close to an espresso. I was getting so dark so fast that I considered quitting basketball. But I had developed a deep love for the sport and it would have sucked not being able to play with my teammates, whom I had grown attached to. I was rife with internal conflict, hating myself for being born the way I was. I also felt ashamed to go to school because I was convinced people would notice the difference and make fun of me like my classmates and relatives did in Malaysia.
Thankfully, this was far from the case. Sure, I was clearly much darker, but nobody insulted me for it. My own teammates were visibly much darker as well, and their tan lines were even more apparent when they wore shorts or tank tops. All of us had so many different shades of brown on different parts of our body, but to them it was a mark of being healthy and active. They didn’t fuss over it or stop playing basketball because of it. Every practice was taken just as seriously as any other and everyone was focused on making the team. I, however, still hated myself.
One day, at the end of our practice when we had done a few rounds of suicide runs, I looked around at my teammates and saw everyone huffing and puffing. Some were tomato red with their hair sticking out here and there. Some had gotten much darker compared to the first day we met on the court. Those with naturally dark skin had managed to get even darker, close to the colour of wet coffee grounds. But everyone was laughing, playfully complaining to the coach as we always did, and had their game faces on for our final friendly before the coach made his team selections. It was strange to me that no one scanned their body to see the damage done, like I had. But seeing how content and confident they all were tugged a little something in me. That day, I witnessed a court of girls with diverse skin shades and saw the confidence that lay beyond.
In light of making the team, getting to travel often for tournaments, and winning games for the school, I decided that stressing myself out over my skin colour was no longer worth it. I felt a strange sense of satisfaction from being able to play a game that I loved (even if it was under the sun) and having people around me who valued me for who I truly was. For the first time in my life, my skin colour marked my success, not my failure.
Now, as someone who has left my safe bubble of an embracing community in a privileged corner of Vietnam, I am forced to see the current state of beauty standards not just in Malaysia, but also the rest of the world. On top of spending four years to obtain a degree in Seoul, South Korea and being an avid traveler, I now have the internet and social media, where I can see that an ideal beauty standard exists and enslaves people everywhere.
To the Koreans, as well as the rest of Asia, having porcelain white skin is still very much ideal. Nothing has changed -- if anything, this craze has gotten worse and exacerbated by the revolutionary K-wave. In the olden days, paleness marked prestige. The fairer you were, the more privileged you must have been to not have to labour out in the sun. In the present day, the superiority of a milky white complexion is as strong as ever. When all the popular media showcases fair-skinned K-pop and K-drama stars being praised for their beauty, it’s hard for consumers not to believe it. Despite increasing news reports on the harms of whitening products, people are still willing to spend pain-staking time and money to look like their favourite celebrities. As a result, the skin-whitening market is projected to hit US $9 billion by 2027, “with most of its sales propelled by Asian and mainland Chinese markets.”
Interestingly, on the other side of the world, people seem to prefer having a more bronze shade of skin, as it implies a healthy glow. In the west, appearing sun-kissed and achieving that perfect vacation tan are extensively marketed by celebrities, such as Ariana Grande, and various social media influencers. Before, I would have thought that this would be where I belonged. However, the methods by which these shades are being obtained are lethal to the human body. People would spend prolonged hours at the beach or use technology to be exposed to unhealthy amounts of UV rays in order to get their desired shade of tan. Advancements in tanning beds allowed people to have “sculpted tans,” instead of getting painted a mono-shade of Cheeto-orange like they used to. Additionally, celebrities like the Kardashians have largely influenced the popularity of a sculpted face, achieved by contouring using shades of powder that are much darker than one’s natural skin tone. As a whole, the “self-tanning” industry continues to boom in the west and held a projected value of US $763.4 million in 2015 alone.
Regardless of what ideal beauty standards people are going for, the methods and products required to meet these standards are clearly toxic. But it doesn’t seem to shake the world. As someone whose childhood was tainted in the pursuit of meeting a standard that shouldn’t have been forced on her in the first place, it’s a sad thing to see that they continue to be enforced, corrupting the minds of many.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t tell us, “You are beautiful just as you are.” It tells us, “You are not beautiful because you don’t have so and so, but we can help fix that for you.” The beauty industry is notorious for attacking insecurities to drive sales. A professor of marketing at Kensington University marked that “creating and highlighting insecurities about the female body has, as a result, become central to many ad campaigns in the cosmetics and personal care industry.” While we can’t escape the media, and culturally embedded beauty standards are almost impossible to dismantle, it’s time that we at least address the flaw in constraining the definition of beauty to a set of standards that don’t apply to everyone.
No one should have to worry about the colour of their skin, or whether they have what it takes to be beautiful. No one should be told they weren’t beautiful in the first place. As modern individuals with more authority over our lives than our predecessors, it’s time to change the way we think about beauty and how we’re communicating it to ourselves and the people around us.
Are we going to be a slave to standards that require us to compromise our well-being? Are we going to be okay with placing societal validation above our own happiness?
Beauty is all around us and we are a part of what makes the world beautiful. So how would we like to paint it -- with a single shade or with many?
Do you have a story about your skin tone and how it affected you? Share your story with the hashtags #ProjectTrueSkin and #StoryOfMyShade on Instagram and/or Twitter. Share before 10 December 2019 and receive a discount code from us as well as a thank you for sharing your story.