So, you’ve signed up to Sephora online.
You’re in the ‘Asia Pacific’ (Australia). You select ‘dark’ as your FleshTone and complete your registration. You start surfing your socials and the internet. What happens next?
For one of our readers, Sarah*, it meant that she began noticing pop up spam for skin bleaching products from Sephora in her online footprint. She would be reading about the latest celeb twitter beef, and THERE THEY WERE. Skin whitening paraphernalia in her side bar. When she saw just one advertisement too many, she contacted FleshTone.net. “Why am I being spammed with skin whitening products?” she asked. “Is it because I’m in the Asia Pacific?”
Well, we all know about those parts of the world (including the Asia Pacific) where white skin is openly coveted as the gold standard. Was this fascination with white skin now infiltrating the online space of one of our readers? I wanted to know why.
An unexpected journey
My journey began with Sephora online, and ended on a global frontier. I started with Sephora beauty subscriptions and finished with a deep dive into racism, colorism and discrimination. So how did this all play out?
Our subscriber Sarah*, of Caribbean heritage, relocated from Washington DC to Melbourne in 2016. She was missing all of her favorite beauty products for women of color, something missing in Australia in general. She was excited that Sephora had opened its first flagship store in Australia and she promptly signed up to Sephora online, selecting ‘Dark” as her FleshTone. She then waited happily for beauty hacks to arrive in her inbox.
In the few weeks following her online Sephora subscription, Sarah contacted FleshTone.net incensed. She had noticed when she was online (which was always), she was receiving targeted online marketing from Sephora including skin whitening creams. Sarah felt that these creams were invading her online territory. She had not indicated any interest in skin bleaching in her Sephora registration. Quite the opposite. So why was the Sephora algorithm targeting her for skin bleaching? What was the Asia Pacific connection?
I wanted to get some personal perspectives of why white skin could be considered the answer to ‘problematic’ black skin. So I contacted Sharon Wang, lawyer, entrepreneur and mother, with roots in both mainland China and Hong Kong. We’d had heated arguments about Lucy Liu in the past. I wanted her view on skin whitening and the reasons why it is a thing in China. A huge thing. Here is Sharon’s story.
Part 1: SHARON “White Rich and Beautiful”
Many of you would have seen the outrageous Qiaobi cleaning advertisement from China. A leering black man is ‘fed’ cleaning liquid, bundled into a washing machine, and emerges as a smiling Chinese man. Qiaobi’s response to the predictable criticism was at first bizarre and indignant, before becoming begrudgingly apologetic. I wanted to investigate the first response. What was Sharon’s perception of black and brown skin in China?
As the international discourse of Chinese and African relations is so often viewed (and skewed) through the lens of the West, I knew this first hand conversation was going to be interesting.
Here’s what Sharon had to say about her experience.
“I was born in China and I am from a military family. When I was 2 years old my parents divorced, and when I was 7 my mum decided she was going to resign from the Communist party and move the both of us to Hong Kong. I consider myself as having a very fortunate upbringing. I have a dual degree of commerce and law and I am currently studying my Executive MBA.”
In your experience, do you believe that Chinese people consider themselves superior to Western Countries and cultures?
I don’t believe so. Though…I don’t know if it’s because of the war when China was literally taken over by eight foreign countries – the majority of those invaders were western countries. So the Chinese have been very envious of people with paler skin. Though maybe this envy has always been there, before any Western influence. I don’t know. So if anything they admire people with whiter skin and taller bridge of their nose – people with a more pronounced facial structure and features. That would mean that a western person, a Caucasian, so to speak, appeals more to a Chinese person than a black person does.
What are some of the stereotypes that you think Chinese people may have about black and brown people?
I think the Chinese impression is that black people are, generally speaking, poorer people from third world countries. The Chinese perceive brown people as not quite as poor as black people.
However, if the black person is African-American they may assume that black person has had a good upbringing and good education and all of that.
Why do you think that some of these stereotypes about black and brown people persist in China?
I think it originated from ancient roots, in a sense that ever since the feudal societies, poorer people like the farmers and the rural workers have darker skin because they’re tanned from working outside under the sun. So if you are from an upper class family you are paler or have less tanned skin. So I think it stems from that.
Black people are still somewhat of a novelty in China. You don’t see many of them. So when they see a black person they’re more in awe – of their physique, how they walk, their stature. Black people in China from what I can gather are always taller, fitter and better-dressed than the locals. You don’t see many poor black people in China, that’s for sure. It’s actually very cool, from a contemporary Chinese point of view to be able to hang out with black people. It’s cooler than hanging out with white people because white people are not so rare anymore.
So does “hanging out” convert to, say, marriage? How would that be looked at?
Well as it happens, my sister-in-law was engaged to an Indian man. He was very well-educated, a doctor like her. My mother in law was vehemently against the union of the two. She said that living in a white society (where they were), the Chinese are already second-class citizens. She didn’t want her daughter to marry “down” to a brown person. She considered that Chinese people were already second-tier, so if you marry to a black or brown person – in her mind, this would be third tier or below.
I want to talk about physical characteristics. What physical characteristics are prized in Chinese society?
There is a saying that describes a desirable male in China, which is Gao Fu Shuai – Gao means tall, Fu means rich, Shuai means handsome. Tall – Rich – Handsome. And the three characteristics that describe a desirable woman is Bai Fu Mei – Bai means white, meaning pale skin. Fu means rich, Mei means beautiful. White – Rich – Beautiful.
Let me break down the ‘handsome’ and the ‘beautiful’.
To be handsome in Chinese society, you’ve got to have a certain facial structure, your body must be in proportion, your head can’t be too big or too small, you’ve got to have a tall nose (you can’t have a flat bridge), your face can’t be round, your face has got to be oval, you’ve got to have high cheekbones, and your lips can’t be too thin – they prefer full lips now because it’s sensual.
For women there’s a saying in China which is basically – ‘even if you are plain, if you have white skin, you can still be considered attractive’. To be a beautiful woman you have to be tall, but not too tall. You have to have voluminous hair, you have to be slim and you need to have muscle tone. You also have to have big eyes with double eyelids.
Double eyelids. Westerners in China were, back in say twenty or so years ago, known as “round eyes” because they had almond-shaped eyes, with double eyelids – eyes that were big and deep. Whereas, traditionally, more Chinese have single eyelids. So, definitely you need double-eyelids. A typical face-shape that’s considered beautiful in China is heart-shaped. Three thirds of your face are from the end of the hairline on your forehead to the top of your eyebrow, and from the middle of your eyebrows to the end of your nose and from the end of your nose to the bottom of your chin – they need to be equal distance. They need to be in proportion. And your face can’t be round like mine because that’s considered not pretty. And your lips can’t be thin like mine or too small.
Do you think that aspiration towards these apparent western ideals is changing at all with younger Chinese women and men?
Yes, for the people born in the 90s and later, they seem to be a lot more readily accepting of the features they were born with. And less sort of focused on the traditional Chinese characteristics of what’s considered beautiful.
We need to discuss Lucy Liu. To me, she is just beautiful. You think otherwise?
Lucy Liu is ugly. She’s not considered beautiful at all in China. She’s got single eyelids. Her face is too angular. She has freckles on her skin. She’s not white, she’s yellow. Her hair is not voluminous it’s just flat. I can’t think of a single feature that’s praised by any of my friends in China. In fact whenever I say “Lucy Liu is in this movie” – my friends will say, “Oh that ugly chick.”
“Lucy Liu is ugly. She’s not considered beautiful at all in China.”
Who is considered beautiful in China is Fan Bing-Bing. She’s an all-around beauty. She has a straight, tall nose, double-eyelids, nice lips, not too big, not too small, she has a heart-shaped face, she’s not skin and bones and she’s definitely slim and toned, she’s about 168 cm. And she has white skin.
Your skin is quite fair. Have you ever felt pressure to lighten your skin at any point?
When I was a teenager my mum would buy all these whitening products by Lancôme which are not available in the West – they are only in Asian markets. She would buy me a sh*t-ton of these products for me to make my skin fairer. And if I was going out she would tell me to carry an umbrella, or wear sunscreen or wear a hat so I don’t get tanned.
In China, I guess it’s okay if you’re black and you’re born black and you’re of that race. But if you’re Chinese, you were born a Chinese person and then you’re darker than your contemporaries, then that’s bad.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of our Blog. Are you Fair & Lovely? Find out why the co-founder of the #UnfairandLovely movement considers that anti-blackness is global.