Today, I’d like to talk about beauty ideals. It wasn’t new to me that most Asian countries prefer a fair skin and many people had advised me to take cosmetics from Germany with me because I would find it hard to buy creams without brightener here. So I came prepared.
Nevertheless, it shocked me how many compliments I received for my light hair, blue eyes and especially for my relatively pale complexion: “Sooo beautiful!” and then my female colleagues would hold their arms next to mine and continue “Not like my skin, this’ ugly!” In Vientiane, I encountered multiple women in the streets whose skin looked yellowish and definitely very unhealthy. In combination with the usual bit of sweat I kept wondering if they were seriously sick or just used too much of a cheap brightening product. By now, I know that it is the latter reason…
When I checked out the cosmetic products in the shops, all the warnings were confirmed: Pretty much every single product contains whitening ingredients: face wash, face cream, face masks, hand soap, make-up, even deodorant and some baby’s products! Many of the brands (Dove, Nivea, Head&Shoulders, …) I know from back home and they have all developed products tailored especially to the Asian demand. This trend is now more and more spreading towards men as well. I checked out the ingredients of those creams and it turns out that some of them are actually used by professional dermatologists. Most of them block the building of melanin. So far so good. Others, however, are nasty chemicals and especially the cheap creams contain a lot of those.
Mirror, mirror on the wall – who’s the fairest of them all?
The reason for this beauty ideal is the same as it was in Europe in other centuries: Tanned skin is associated with poor peasants and rural life coined by hard labour while fair skin stands for education, a good career and a wealthy city-life. This is why a picture like
the one on the right is not an unusual sight here: Lao people often wear a jacket to cover their arms when riding their motorbikes plus masks or bandanas to protect themselves from the sun and dust. And they wear knee high socks with flip-flops, which they take off upon arrival in the office. Often, I see more umbrellas when the sun is out than when it’s raining. As for myself, I now have multiple funny tan lines from riding my bike to work, but it would never cross my mind to cover up so heavily in that heat… Remember, it’s always about 30degrees here!
But whenever I am shaking my head in disbelief, a small voice inside my head is like: “Well, you know perfectly well that lazing in the sun to get a tan is not healthy either, don’t you!?” And I immediately feel like a little hypocrite because I find myself getting annoyed about those exact tan lines; especially the ones from my flip-flops. I guess beauty ideals are always bitches. Firstly, because they put so much pressure on us that we do things that harm our bodies (I’ve heard of anal bleaching before, but did you know that some Indian women now bleach their private lady parts!?). But I mainly hate them because they make us feel ugly and inferior. Mirror, mirror on the wall – who’s the unhappiest of us all? Jeez, humans are stupid and I am no exception – on the contrary.
Anyways, it’s an interesting experience, one could probably write bulky books about where those ideals derive from etc. But I’m not intending to plunge into a racist discussion just now. Just check out how different the Lao and German understanding of ‘beauty’ is!
If you are further interested in the topic, check out this great video depicting some of the international beauty ideals: