The Economics of Skin Colour

“It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body.” (Darwin 1871)

 Summer comes finally. For most Europeans, it is the time to go out and get some suntanned when the sun is up. Well, no thanks for Asians. Thousand miles away in busy streets of Hanoi, Beijing, or Tokyo, women are dressed up like ninja to avoid sunlight. There, an old Chinese idiom tells it all: “one white covers up three uglinesses.”

skin coloue
Wow, look at what they’re doing!

To be white is not just a personal matter.

In Asia, it has something to do with the perception of beauty dated back some thousand years ago.

The words for fair and beautiful are synonymous in India. Korean historians believed that “flawless skin like white jade” have been preferred since their very first dynasty, say, the Gojoseon Era, 2333-108B.C.E.

In Japan’s Edo period, it is even a “moral duty” for women to use white powder to the face. And perhaps any movie addict could not forget a pale-looking face of Zhang Ziyi in “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Similar white obsession could easily be found in other Asian cultures.

Zhang Ziyi
Zhang Ziyi, A symbol of Asian beauty

This standard of “whiteness” not only affects the way women feel about their appearances, but also their social status, job opportunities, and even marital prospect. To somewhat, it is the “external control” of women embedded deeply within Asian culture and society.

Like it or not, Asian women are persuaded that they will be better off with lighter skin. Consequently, all are in for a race to be white.

It is worth noting that this white phenomenon is not unique for Asians. Before 20th century, Europeans also preferred white skin people as recognition of one’s higher social status. Doubt? Please have a look at the famous painting La promenade (1875) by Claude Monet below, in which the lady used umbrella and long-sleeve clothes to avoid sunlight.

Promenade by Claude Monet
Promenade by Claude Monet

Some women portraits during the Middle Ages even show the “realistic ravages of lead poisoning” which they suffered in order to maintain the “white ideal”.  A more apparent case is the beauty of Snow White, who “was as white as snow, her lips were as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony.”

Evidently, Europeans used to favour white-skin instead of getting suntanned. This only changed in early 20th century thanks to the inspiration from Coco Chanel, the legend French designer, and scientific links between sunlight and human health.

Why white?

It is more complicated to explain why white skin is favoured in Asia. One hypothesis tries to link the perception with the result of the World War II, in which “Western” powers, particularly the US, won. As the result, Asians had the desire to imitate the “winners,” or be like them.

This provocative suggestion however fails to address the long root of “whiteness admire” in Asian history. In addition, to the extent that the US was considered more like an enemy for most Asian countries after the WWII, it would be a little bit weird to imagine Asians tried to look like them.

The more acceptable hypothesis suggests that skin colours are closely related to the socio-economic status of women.

In a traditional agrarian culture, those who with darker skin used to be linked to lower labour class, who had to work outside in the sun, while those who with lighter skin presumably came from higher class, so that they didn’t have to work manually. Even nowadays, such presumption still exists: having a white skin means that you work in the air-conditioned office and do not have expose to darkening sunray like manual labourers.

That works reversely in Western countries. The logic is that if you are wealthy, you will have more time and money to spend outside or to take holidays in some tropical beach and get sun-kissed.

In some special cases, skin colour even decides the line between life and death. In the colonial era in Africa and Asia, lighter skin people, who were perceived to be more “European,” were treated better than dark skin ones.

They were given more privilege, better position in the society, and when the colonialists had to concede the land, the whole system to dominate. This led to fatal ethnic divisions in many post-colonial countries, resulting in bloody civil conflicts. The most horrified example is the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, in which an estimate of one million Tutsis, who were perceived to be “whiter” race than the majority “self-considered” darker Hutu, were murdered.

A supply-demand explanation

Given other body characteristics are the same, a simple economic explanation on difference skin-colour preference can be exploited. The mechanism works like this: where there is a shortage of supply, the value goes up.

Now the picture would be apparent.

In Asia and Africa, where the sun is always around, there are more dark-skin people than light-skin ones.

In Western countries, particularly Scandinavians, as miserably long and gloomy winter dominates, there are certainly more white skin (or pale?) people than suntanned.

This will explain why people in those areas prefer opposite kinds of skin colours. It also addresses well, historically, why white-skin was sometimes favoured in the West in the old times, but not now. The reason is that outdoor labour has been reduced massively, dragging with it the popularity of dark-skin in the Western society.

The Costs of Colour

Whether white or suntanned, the skin colour obsessions take serious tolls on women.

Asians are supposed to spend around $20bn per year for whitening their skin. This huge amount of money will surely increase annually, thanks to Asian booming economy. This is not to mention the disastrous side effects of applying inappropriate whitening methods and the lack of time exposure to sunlight.

Meanwhile, skin cancer, which is mostly caused by over-exposure to UV rays from the sun, is one of the most popular types of cancers in the West. In Australia alone, it accounts for 80 percent of newly diagnosed cancers.

Too much or too little of something is equally bad.


7 thoughts on “The Economics of Skin Colour

  1. I used to wonder about this phenomenon of different skin colour preferences and came up with the answer myself, pretty much the same as yours. Thank you for the thorough explanation, am always a fan of your writing, both in Vietnamese and in English.

  2. Great article! Being a whitey in Saigon who loves working on my suntan, it still amazes me the amount of effort local girls go to when dressing like a ninja, just to avoid the slightest bit of sun. I would seriously overheat if I wore so many layers during the heat of the day!

  3. mostly agreed. one point, in Japan/Korea or North China, the weather tends to be colder but white skin is valued the same way.

  4. Plus, direct exposure to the strong sun SOMETIMES is quite painful. I put the same question mark on Asian perception of beauty but I do understand the pleasure of wearing a thin (not like in HCMc where they wear a real winter jacket) layer to cover your skin. Its different when you sunbathe here as the combination of sun/wind/temperature is more pleasant. So it was a mistranslation over generations from functional to aesthetic value?

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