Opinion / Blog

Whiter vs darker: what is beautiful?

By kellivschina ( Updated: 2015-05-15 17:43

The sun is out and the week has been deliciously warm. In the US, this means that all the women put on their tank tops and sunglasses. In China, there may still be some tank tops and sunglasses, but all I've noticed is dozens of girls carrying umbrellas and parasols to protect their skin from the sun.

At first, I thought it was pretty funny and even a little ridiculous. 

It's just such a difference from what I'm used to growing up in the US. If you were to check out an American college campus right now, you probably wouldn't see too many umbrellas (unless you were visiting a campus in Seattle.I don't think the rainy season is quite over there yet). Instead, you'd probably see girls out on the grassy fields in front of their dorms pretending to study for finals but really hoping to get a head start on their summer tan. At least, I know that's where I was as a freshman in college! As soon as the weather even hinted that summer was coming we were all outside trying to get darker.

Since coming to China, I've found it very interesting to compare the beauty ideals from those in America. From what I've seen in Chinese commercials and advertisements, it seems that there are two physical traits that a Chinese woman must possess to be considered beautiful. She must (1) be thin and (2) have white skin. In America, thinness is also desirable (although we strive for the seemingly impossible ideal of being both thin and curvy where it counts) but white skin is not what we're after. Americans want to be tan. In fact, having darker skin is so desirable that many women (and men) will pay for fake tans so that they can keep up their sun-kissed appearance during the winter months, too. To the Chinese, this idea sounds absurd! (and, when you think about it, isn't it?)

After Spring Festival, one of my expat co-workers came back from her vacation in Thailand looking significantly darker than before. Some of the Chinese students were concerned about what had happened to her usually fair skin. One of them asked her, "Did you do that on purpose?" and was of course horrified to find out that she had.

How do these cultural standards of beauty come about? Who decides that white skin is going to be more beautiful than dark skin, or vice versa? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they're interesting to consider. Is there really an "ideal" standard of beauty? Even within cultures, these ideals change. If you could pay a visit to the US 150 years ago, you would also see women carrying around parasols trying to preserve their porcelain skin.

Although at first I was tempted to laugh at the appearance of all the "sun-brellas," the truth is that it's a probably much better practice for the skin than fake tanning. Just because I've grown up with one idea of what beauty is, it doesn't mean that it's necessarily the correct or the best idea. I think that's a benefit of living in a different country; you get shaken up a little bit and have to analyze the things that you've grown up doing. Do they really make sense? Are they really the best things to pursue?

Still, even after seeing all of these Chinese girls with beautiful white skin, I think I'll always prefer to be a little darker. My Chinese students might think I'm crazy, but it's hard to throw off the cultural ideals that you grow up with.

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