Barack Obama's inauguration as the nation's first African-American president got a lot in this country thinking and talking about race. Obama's triumph proved that any child can dream of becoming president, regardless of skin color. We in America may have reaffirmed the notion that the color of a person's skin shouldn't matter. But for many people across Asia, the color of skin matters a lot. In recent years, "skin whitening" has become a huge industry in countries like China, Korea, Japan, and India.
"The World's" Phillip Martin has been exploring the phenomenon of skin whitening in Asia and has this report.
Walking beside a rushing stream in Hsingchu, Taiwan, 18-year-old Hilda Chu balances an umbrella in one hand and textbooks in the other. Her skin is ghostly white. Hilda says she carries an umbrella mainly to avoid skin cancer, but also to preserve her light complexion: "I try hard to make my skin white, yes. If my skin is lighter, I think I will be more happier. "
Hilda Chu is among a growing number of Asians who are paying lots of money to dermatologists like Dr. Hseih Ya Ju who says bluntly Asians like white skin. Dr. Hsieh works at MacKay Memorial Hospital in Hsingchu, where she sees about 25 patients a day. She says her professional motto is simple: "To make your skin white, make your skin tight, and your skin bright."
Dr. Hsieh says her treatments can cost anywhere from $300 to $500 US dollars per session: "Sometimes we suggest patients take some pills – Transamine. Transamine is a kind of pills that will help patient become white."
Whitening regimes like transamine are offered in creams, pills, and injections and with laser treatments. But not everyone can afford them -- so a growing number of poor Asian women are using illegal products containing toxic chemicals that have left some of them disfigured. Even some government-sanctioned skin whitening products contain high levels of toxic mercury.
So it's no surprise that Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez, a senior dermatologist at Boston's Mass General Hospital, says skin whitening can be dangerous: "The best protection that you have for your skin against sun damage is pigment, melanin. If you lose the pigment of your skin, you suddenly become white. The whiter they become the more chances they will be subjected to skin damage and skin cancer."
But this has not stemmed the practice in places like Taiwan, where more than 50 percent of women and a smaller but growing proportion of men pay big money to lighten their beige, tan, and golden complexions. One survey by Synovate found that 4 out of 10 women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea used a skin-whitening cream. More than 60 global companies are competing for a share of Asia's estimated $18 billion dollar market.
Nydia Lin is a senior executive in Taiwan for the Japanese cosmetics giant, Shisedo: "We promote the idea of whitening. Especially in Taiwan, we see many beautiful idols on TV and they are all very focused on their whitening skin. As Chinese say, 'Whitening is everything. You can just cover all your defective parts if you are white.'"
You hear variations of that slogan – you can cover up three shortcomings if you are white – all over Asia. But Chao-Yuan Tsen sees whitening as a form of self-hatred and racial inferiority. She's Secretary General of the Awakening Foundation, a women's rights organization: "The beauty industries in Taiwan emphasize different skin tones. They say if you can be as white as Japanese and Western women, you can be as beautiful as a cherry blossom. I think this promoting this kind of image that they create doesn't make women any happier. It actually creates more anxiety."
Anxiety that's deeply ingrained in the fabric of Asian society. Beijing-based author Lijia Zang knows this firsthand, and writes about it in her recent memoir 'Socialism is Great': "I have often been called a "peasant girl". Even my sister sometimes calls me a peasant girl. I don't think my father liked me very much because I was not a pretty child. I was dark, and I remember he said to me repeatedly that I was not their natural daughter. They picked me up from a coal dump, which was why my skin was so dark."
Across much of Asia, long held views about class superiority help explain the appeal of skin whitening. So says Anne Rose Kitagawa, assistant curator of Japanese Art at Harvard's Sackler Museum. She cites the 11th century Japanese epic "The Tale of Genji" that she says tells the story of a raunchy prince and his descendents: "They had many late night trysts with women who they almost never saw in direct light. And the feminine ideal during the Han period for women of the court was almost unearthly light white skin. Sort of large, moon-like, roundish faces, long, long black hair. And so you can see how a culture that maintained that as an early ideal might continue on with an ideal that light skin equals beauty."
That ancient ideal has been reinforced by modern Western culture. And it can be seen in the faces of Western models gazing from the giant billboards along the route of the commuter train that snakes through downtown Tokyo. The billboards also include white-skinned Asians with porcelain colored faces. Across Asia, the pressure to be white is pushed by relentless advertising, from Japan to Korea to India. This ad for skin whitening products features one of India’s biggest movie stars: Shah Rukh Khan – who says that you, too, can be successful in life and love if your skin color is a lighter shade of pale.
Tarun Khanna of the Harvard Business School and author of the book "Billions of Entrepreneurs" says many Indians believe a fair complexion is the key to finding a successful partner: "In the marriage market, fairness is a big, big deal. You can go to the websites that are marriage brokers and the very fact that most of the matrimonial ads will present people as being fair skinned or not indicate that it is an attribute that the market values."
Indeed. Of the more than 200 personal ads I surveyed online, 192 Indian men and women either described themselves as fair skinned or said they were looking for a partner who was. It's a common desire across Asia. On the streets of Beijing, with translation assistance from a young writer, Mia Lee, a reddish-hued migrant worker from Central China was asked what he thought was the secret to happiness.
He wants a girlfriend with pale skin.
Which is why you see advertisements for skin whitening products just about everywhere here. Author Lijia Zang says it’s another sign of China's emerging middle class and the social pressures faced by women trying to enter the professional work force: "So for some women, even those who don’t think white is particularly beautiful, but in order to go far in a career, in order to attract a good boyfriend, they try to put on whitening cream."
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.
More "The World."