A few weeks ago my old friend Justin arrived in Taipei. We’ve known each other since elementary school and, as such, can remember every single mortifying thing that happened to each other and all our classmates between the ages of 9 and 17.
“Do you remember how everybody called me the Stay Puft Marshmallow Girl in fifth and sixth grade?” I asked him recently. Justin said he had no recollection of that, which was surprising because I remember the teasing being pretty pervasive (as in, people who didn’t actually know my real name knew me as Stay Puft). I figured that maybe I’d completely blown things out of proportion in my memory until I suddenly remembered… my classmates never called me the Stay Puft Marshmallow Girl! Nope! They called me the Pillsbury Dough Girl.
I recount this humiliating childhood trauma because if you live in Taiwan (and, indeed, in any Asian country), complaining about being pale can come off as humblebragging. But my pasty skin often does make me feel self-conscious and unattractive. Having grown up in the US, I associate tans with being athletic and rich enough to go on long vacations. My workout consists of walking around the park swatting at mosquitos and I spend so much time at my desk that my butt is now the same shape as my Ikea office chair… but if I manage a fake tan, then I can at least pretend to be healthy and wealthy!
The only thing stopping me from achieving this treasured goal is the fact that self-tanner is really hard to find in Taiwan (I know of a couple of tanning booth chains, but I don’t want to damage my skin). I have to bring it back tube by pathetic tube from the States. When I was back in California, I went to Target and marveled at the wall of products designed to turn the pastiest person into a delectable shade of rich bitch bronze. In Taiwan (and much of Asia), the parallel is skin whiteners (skin whitening masks, skin whitening lotions, skin whitening powders, skin whitening foundations…).
When I was growing up, my parents’ friends always complimented them on my white skin. I figured that was because they had nothing else nice to say about me until my parents told me that being extremely pasty is actually considered a good thing by Asian beauty standards. There is a even a Chinese saying (一白遮三醜, yībáizhēsānchǒu) that means “one white conceals three uglies.”
“Too bad we’re NOT IN ASIA!” I would shriek. I was a roly-poly little girl with thick glasses and a slight speech impediment. Looking like a fluorescent bulb when I stood under the hot Californian sun on the schoolyard blacktop just increased my overall aura of geekiness and made me more vulnerable to bullying.
For a couple years in high school, I embraced my paleness (this was probably after I watched “The Craft”). I accentuated my chalky pallor with red lipstick and coal black hair dye that turned my dark chestnut locks into a crunchy monochrome mass. But in college, I started experimenting with self-tanners and bronzers, a little hobby I kept up each summer until I moved to Taiwan. Being more tan makes my limbs look thinner and covers up all the insect bites and random bruises or scrapes that otherwise stand out very clearly on my skin.
I think Western observers tend to assume that the underlying prejudices behind skin tone bias in Asia are the same as in the US, where wanting paler skin is often the result of a desire to appear more racially White (as opposed to just literally white). A tan is good, but only if it’s on top of skin that started off light in pigmentation. But though skin tone bias in Asia does indeed dovetail neatly with Eurocentric beauty ideals, most people in Asia do not compare themselves to Caucasian people on daily basis. They compare themselves to Asian people who have more money. It’s not so much about racism as it is about classism.
Until recently, Taiwan was an agricultural economy. Even if you were a city dweller with an indoor job, you spent a lot of time basking in the sun as you fetched water from a pump, tended to your vegetable garden, fed your chickens, went to the market, washed your laundry or did the million other things it took to run a household. Industrialization has changed the economic landscape and culture of Taiwan over the last four decades, but very pale skin is still seen as desirable. (Perhaps that will gradually, very gradually change. Being pale and looking fragile was fashionable during Victorian times, but in the 1920s, as the US and Europe became more industrialized, women began associating a tan with rich jetsetters who were able to spend their winters gallivanting on the French Riviera.)
I wonder how the idealization of white skin impacts people in Taiwan who are not of ethnic Chinese descent. How does it feed into the stereotypes that are leveled against Aboriginal people or expats from Southeast Asia? After moving to Taiwan, I found myself wanting to reach Snooki-like levels of artificial bronzeness. Part of it is vanity. Part of it is because I think the festishization of white skin is so, so stupid that I want to do anything I can to protest against it. I don’t want to be complimented for something if it feeds into a system of classism (and ethnocentrism) that has made life quite miserable for many people. But then I realized that my wanting to be tan also feeds into classism in another culture. Also, my obsession with self-tanner rarely ever turns out well. I usually end up matching my cat.
I know many people scoff at style, beauty products or fashion, but the thing is, even if you only wear T-shirts and chapstick, you still make a decision each time you get dressed or groomed about how you will present yourself to the world. No matter where we live or what our personalities are, none of our sartorial decisions are made in a vacuum, especially where race, gender and class is concerned (for more on this topic from an American POV, check out this recent post by Racialicious and this thought-provoking entry by What Tami Said about hair straightening in the Black community). I don’t want to look like Stay Puft or the Pillsbury Dough Girl. I genuinely enjoy experimenting with cosmetics and skincare products; it’s fun to see what color (or strange pattern) my skin turns after I rub on some tanner. But I also don’t want to play into beauty standards that are based on prejudices that I find truly obnoxious.