I get self-conscious when I go to the beach. I’m not the sort of person who feels comfortable in a bikini. My skin is incredibly pale. I don’t tan well. I just burn and peel. I’ve always been slightly jealous of my sister because of this. She steps outside for one day in May and tans. I guess all the good family tanning genetics went to her.
I don’t know how long the idea has been there, but in American culture tan skin is considered more beautiful than pale skin. There have been studies showing that the majority of Americans see tan skin as attractive.
Our ad campaigns show tan models; summer basically revolves around activities that involve tanning; Googling spray tan yields over 298 MILLION results; and in 2010, 5.6% of adults in the United States used indoor tanning devices (CDC) – all despite evidence that both indoor and outdoor tanning increase your risk of skin cancer.
The cultural component to this became clear when my sister and I went to China in the summer of 2019 to visit some friends.
Prepping for the trip was on the back burner as I finished my final semester of college. In the days before we were scheduled to leave, I was frantically googling what to wear for the climate I’d be visiting.
From what I gathered, it was going to be hot and humid. Plus, one of our friends is a dance teacher, so I packed plenty of workout clothes and a few pairs of shorts because that’s what I usually wear in 90 degree weather.
I tried to stay minimal when it came to packing, so I only packed one extra pair of jeans. By day two into my visit I already regretted this decision. Apparently, even in 90 degree heat, the appropriate thing to do is to wear jeans. In China, it’s best to cover up skin. So rather than enjoy the comfort of my shorts while hiking up hundreds of steps to the Buddhist temple, I sweat excessively to fit in with the group. Peer pressure is a powerful thing.
I asked my friends about this and they told me that women in China view pale skin as more beautiful than tanned skin. Chinese women will go to great lengths to protect their skin from the tanning effects of the sun. As noted by This Week in Asia, a World Health Organization survey found that almost 40% of women in the Asian countries of China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea use cosmetic products to brighten their skin.
This article further noted: “The global skin-whitening market was valued at US $4.8 billion in 2017, according to Global Industry Analysts, and is anticipated to reach US $8.9 billion by 2027, with Asian countries making up a major segment.” Skin brightening is big business over there.
Part of this is rooted in the cultural idea that those with pale skin are from a higher economic class. In China, this concept dates as far back as the Han Dynasty (50 B.C.). Historically, if a person had pale skin, it meant that person could afford the luxury of spending time inside rather than labor in the fields.
Our friends helped us experience the culture of China, but one thing I didn’t get used to was local people snapping pictures of us. I was basically a celebrity. Partly because it’s rare to see foreigners in the areas we visited, but also because my “undesirable” trait of pale skin was prized as beautiful.
The polar opposites of beauty standards struck me. What is considered beautiful in one culture is undesirable in another. In America I’m told that even though my genetics don’t allow me to tan, if I buy the right products and do the right activities, that prized tan can be all mine. In China, the genetic component is different, but the message is similar. Buy the right products and cover up, and you can have the lighter skin you desire.
Perhaps beauty standards feel unattainable because they are constantly shifting. This can leave people feeling ugly and unsatisfied with how they look. It saddens me that so many of us are consumed with appearances because of arbitrary standards from the societies we live in.
The level of melanin in the skin cannot be genetically altered. There’s nothing I can do to change the color of my skin. But in my own way, I am beautiful. Imperfect, but beautiful. Even as I come to accept that, I still want to care for my skin and appearance. It’s just that the motivation behind it is coming more from a desire to be healthy and comfortable than from a desire to fit in.
If you’re seeking to improve your appearance, do it because it is something you want to do. Let it come from a desire to care for yourself, and to be healthy.
When driven by these motivations, I’m better able to find a balance between caring about how I present myself and being grateful for who I am.
How you view yourself is more important than what others think. So go have a look in the mirror and see the beauty that you are.
The Skin Cancer Foundation. (2021, January 04). Tanning & Your Skin. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.skincancer.org/risk-factors/tanning/
CDC. (2012, May 11). Use of Indoor Tanning devices by adults – United STATES, 2010. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6118a2.htm
Lewandowski Jr., G. W., Ph.D. (2020, July 17). Will a tan make you more attractive? Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-psychology-relationships/202007/will-tan-make-you-more-attractive
Tai, C., & Sukumaran, T. (2019, February 03). Asia’s addiction to whiter skin runs deep – but the backlash has begun. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/society/article/2184747/asias-addiction-whiter-skin-runsdeep-backlash-has-begun
Hyan, J. (2019, February 14). Why do East Asians want pale skin? It has nothing to do with Western beauty standards. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://nextshark.com/east-asian-pale-skin-beauty-standard/