Skin Colour is More Skin-Deep Than Meets the Eyes (Or Beauty is in the Eyes of the Culture)
We obsess with our skin. Even when we aren't racists, we're still preoccupied with it. We still judge ourselves by the colour of our skins. Outside racism, we judge the 'man-made' environmental tone rather than the genetic colour of the skin we're born with.
Well, this is hardly surprise as this is our most visible things (because it's the largest organs) on our bodies.
In the West, specifically in English speaking countries like Australia, people prefer tanned skin (I'm not talking about racial skin colour). Sunbathing is quite a fashionable thing to do in Europe. At the mean time, people in the Far East - especially in China - preferred pale skin. Let's look at some evidence.
I've been living in Singapore in the last 3 years in Holland Village. This shopping centre is a magnet for expats (read Caucasian) with its range of eateries. Here's a typical scenario of any restaurant, or coffee shop: Western expats occupy the outdoor tables of the restaurants/coffee shops while locals cocoon inside the air-conditioned premises, or walking in the streets with umbrellas.
Not convinced? Too anecdotal? For the Singaporean locals, umbrellas are being employed during sunny as well as rainy days. For the 30 years of living in Sydney, Australia, I've never seen a single white Aussie carrying umbrella during sunny days (Sydney in summer is far hotter and sunnier than any day in Singapore). In fact, soaking the sun rays while walking under the sun isn't enough for the white folks, so they sunbathing in the beautiful beaches of Australia. This is an Australian national favourite pastime (and the cause of the highest skin cancer rate in the world).
Still not convinced? Aren't you a sceptic? Skin whitening cream and lotion are popular in Singapore, HK, and China. Walk into any chemist shop and you have no trouble locating them. I suspect it's popular in many parts of Asia. Well, even the Google Ads is displaying the whitening cream.
It's abundantly clear that the white people want to look darker while the darker Asian want to look whiter. Is it because of their tendency to want to reach the middle ground? Or do we desire something we don't have (like grass is greener on the other side, or skin is always looking better in other race)? Really?
In the well-heeled countries of, say USA or the Down Under, the tanned skin suggest people with money to travel. Lazing around on the beach sunbathing suggests the same leisurely lifestyle of the rich. People also talk about healthy tan in the health conscious time. Just ask Hollywood actor George Hamilton, the Man of Style. He doesn't tan himself to look less respectable.
In the developing/emergent economies of the East like China, tanned skin associates with labourers working outdoors in the sun - farmers in the rice paddies, street peddlers, construction workers, coolies, etc. The migrant workers across China are dark skinned. White collar workers pushing pencils in offices are shielded from the sun, and they are considered to have higher social status.
And in many warmer and more sunny Southern parts of China, such popular travel destination like Guilin, a common, but curious sight to tourists are the bicycle-umbrellas. Even some motorbikes equip with such essential accessories. These umbrellas are for the protection against the sun; it's useless in rain.
In the beaches of China's tropical island of Hainan, it's not uncommon to see Chinese ladies in bikinis, holding umbrellas - a unique Chinese tourist sight. (If somebody has come up with an umbrella that could be used while swimming, it should sell very well in southern China. No, it doesn't. It's called suntan lotion).
The traditional idea of Japanese beauty could be seen in Geisha. They painted their faces with white powder to accentuate the whiteness.
Similarly, the highly developed - read Westernised - economy in the East like Japan, a craze of extreme sun tanning arose in the last decade called ganguro - blond hair and dark skin (rebellious to the traditional Japanese, probably influenced by the trend in the West). Especially among the Japanese girls, they take the idea to such an extreme that they look more like Aussie surfers than Japanese.
And they don't so things by half measure, they go the full hog.
It isn't a question of that the East or the West has different ideas of aesthetics. They just have opposite ways of associating and expressing social status with skin tone.
The "Eastern way" isn't uniquely to the East at all. In fact, it was the way of the West before the 20th century. European women before 20th century also valued white skin highly. And the carrying of parasols in sunny days were common and fashionable. And dark skin would be considered inferior then. In fact, it was all part of the racism as people were ranked according to the skin tone.
Of course, the West shook off its racism, and moved on after its powerful post-WW2 social movements that completely changed the social landscape.
During the time of, say Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen is well known for her chalky face make-up. Nobody commented that she was so white they thought they saw a ghost. They didn't say it not so much because they feared that their heads would roll if it was heard by QE1. It's because they were socially conditioned to like - or at least accept seeing - pearly white skin, which is a symbol of nobility and upper class birth.
The preference for fair skin is neither a Western or Eastern cultural constructs, but based on universal basic instinct (as it usually is). Babies are born with fair skin. Our skin darkened as we aged, and so fair skin represents youth, and thus health (as are big round eyes, muscle tones, wrinkle-free skins, and whatnot).
Before 20th century, there's no difference in the standard of beauty between East or West. The departure occurred in the 20th century when a series of social movements had propelled the West forwards. With the celebration of equality of social classes, the use of skin colour as status symbol of higher social class has less validity. Of course, status symbol isn't have to be any material possession, but the measure of skin colour.
Perhaps, this is the Western cultural version of ganguro. A cultural rebellion to its traditional racism based on the amount of colour pigment in the skin.
Facing the Fats
All this talk of skin colour is skin deep. Fat is another issue that are almost identical to the skin colour. And fat is in fact part of the skin or hypodermis. Fat, like skin, is highly visible, and so it serves as the same social indicator as skin.
In the West, if you call someone fat, it's a friendly joshing at best, an insult designed to hurt at worst. Because of the affluence of the West (in the 20th century), you don't have to be loaded to overeat. So the perception of fat people is that they're lazy, or have no will power, or don't have knowledge of health, etc. Fat is associated with blue collar workers in the affluent West that skin tan is linked to the working class in the poor countries of the East.
In China, fat is associated with high social status. Mao Zedong is reasonably fat in his later years. When he swum the Yangtze as a propanganda to show that he was still in top physical shape, while his topless body showed quite a bit of fatty celluloid.
In the West today, people would say this guy is out of shape just based on the shape of body alone. In China, that round shape wasn't viewed in the same way as in the West. At least then, when millions in China were starving. And even more importantly, the opposite view from the rest of the world about his plump body wasn't existed. China was an cultural island then.
Health consciousness was low at that time. To be fair, the whole link of fat and its related diseases was something only established by the medical community, or at least popularised after 1980s (as was the link between smoking and its related diseases. Mao was a heavy smoker. So it's very unlikely that he was healthy).
This is the crux of the matter. In a country where people have been starving for centuries. Only one category of people is being linked with being fat, the well-off and the powerful. You aren't likely to be fat if your 3 square meals are in question. My grannies and old folks of their generations reckoned I could put on few extra pounds (by the way, I was slightly overweight when they made those comments. I have to look like Homer Simpson or giant panda to measure up to their expectation of looking 'good').
You couldn't imagine an American President in the 20th century as fat as Chairman Mao would show off his body in a beach to prove how healthy he was. In fact, they don't even run for office. There's no fat US presidents in the 20th century from memory (or any other time (that I know of)). Coincidence? Really?
In China, calling somebody fat is a term of endearment at worse, and a high compliment at best. In Chinese language, a potbelly is sometimes called a Military General Belly (將軍肚). It's a high praise if you are in doubt. It's a symbol of both power and strength.
General Guan Yu (in these 2 photos) is the most well known of military general. In fact, deified as God of War, is often portrayed with a potbelly. There's a statue of a military general in the exhibition hall (not in the pit) of Xian's Entombed Warrior site that has such potbelly as well. Remember that it was a sculpture, not a photo, so it would be sculpted to the General's desire (ok, photo could be doctored too). And it's obvious that the General wanted his potbelly to be immortalised in terracotta.
Under this deep-seated cultural understanding, it shouldn't come as a surprise if you see Chinese men walking around, showing off their protruding potbellies by rolling up his shirts in summer. Many toruists in China are understandibly mystified by such a proud display of rotund belly. Those who are (un)lucky enough to have seen this is probably nodding their heads right now. Well, like panda, this is uniquely a Chinese tourist sight. He's just doing an impression of a military general. With all that money and efforts investing into making his potbelly noticable, why then hide it? Let other people share this proud and joy (is it 6 months? 8 months? No, it takes many years to get this big). If it's good enough for Guan Yu, it's good enough for me.
What a Chinese mother wants for her birth is delivering a - borrowing an old and common Chinese expression - 'a fat fat white white baby' ('肥肥白白的婴儿'). This is what a mother wants from a baby, fat and white. This is scientifically sound. A dark skinned baby is indeed a sick baby (if the parents have light skin). A skinny baby is malnourished. If it could be applied to babies, why can't it be applied to adults? And so the logic goes.
Health consciousness is also a reason why the West prefer tanned skin and slim body. I have no argument with reducing body fat. But white skin is healthy for white folks. Lobster colour, not so much. For the Chinese, the health consciousness about fatty bodies isn't too high at the moment while the General's potbelly going back for a few millennium. The Guan Yu statue are increasingly being carved without the potbelly, especially those made outside China. I haven't seen any portrayal of Guan Yu in HK movies in the last 3 decades with a big belly. This is a subtle hint of the
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