Walking down a city street on any sunny, summer day in China, you are almost guaranteed to see an array of young women holding sun umbrellas (阳伞), trying to hold off the darkening effects of the sun’s rays. Not only this, but if you visit virtually any cosmetic store in China, you will see an entire section devoted to skin-whitening creams and other anti-tanning products. It appears that in Asia, white skin is a key quality of beauty – a sharp contrast to the world of beach bums and tanning salons found in the west. In fact, it is estimated that residents of Asia spend $18 billion dollars a year on keeping their skin white. But just where did this obsession for pale skin originate?
Looking back historically (even as far back as the Han Dynasty), white skin has long been seen as a desirable beauty trait in China. One of the first forms of make-up used was a kind of white rice-powder, which was prized for its ability to hide imperfections of the skin and face. In addition, having white skinned served to indicate a certain division of class at the time. Being pale set you apart from the sun-tanned skin of the poorer farmers and workers, which in turn indicated that you likely had status and wealth. After all, people who spend all their time under a palace roof shouldn’t get that dark right?
Paleness as a beauty ideal has persisted to this very day, and some individuals take extraordinary measures to prevent their skin from bronzing. One way is to counter-act tanning of the skin via expensive whitening lotions and creams. The other way is to cover up, like our sun umbrella example above, and the bizarre "facekini", which resembles a ski/superhero-mask, and is used to prevent the sun’s rays from reaching the skin. This revolutionary anti-tanning product is now hitting beaches across China.