The Asian Obsession with Fair Skin: Why I Gave Up Caring

“Don’t get too black in Phuket, okay?” my mum cautioned before I left home this morning.

She meant getting tanned; but in Cantonese, there’s no such term when it comes to describing skin tones. You’re either ‘white’ (bak) or ‘black’ (hak), never in between.


Like many East Asians, I come from a culture that is obsessed with fair skin. Most Asian societies were (and some still are) agro-based communities. Having to work in the fields meant that peasants often had dark skin, while the rich and affluent who stayed indoors were usually fair-skinned.

Even in modern society, when we’ve (supposedly) done away with these stereotypes, we’re still bombarded with images that tell us fair = good, dark = bad. When I visited Hanoi in Vietnam, the girls there wore sunglasses, face masks, long-sleeved hoodies and long trousers to protect themselves from the sun. Some of my own friends here in KL won’t leave the house without an umbrella… not coz it’s going to rain, but because they don’t want to get tanned. Which is all fine, but it gets way over (like they’d whip out an umbrella for a 30second walk across the street). Skin whitening products are one of the best selling beauty items in Asia.

But why are we so obsessed with white skin? Social classes based on occupation and connotations of dark skin with hard labour should not exist in the modern world. I guess centuries of perceptions and culture are hard to change. **Meanwhile in Western countries, people are getting into tanning beds and baking themselves in the sun to achieve that dark orange look lol.

I’m darker-skinned than my Malaysian-Chinese friends. My mum’s pretty fair, but my dad and bro are both tanned. I played basketball in high school, and some people around me would go on and on about how I was going to ruin my complexion, that it’s going to make me permanently ‘black’, that guys wouldn’t like me, etc. And my young impressionable mind was, well, impressionable. I became ashamed of my dark skin. I tried whitening facial washes in an effort to lighten my skin tone. (Needless to say, they don’t do shit.)

And then I grew up, joined the working world, experienced stuff, and found that hey – it’s too tiring to follow what other’s think I should look like. Life is too short to please anyone other than yourself.

These days, I love my tanned skin. I like to describe it as honey orange, because that’s what it looks like to me. I learnt to embrace what was given to me by my parents and nature. It’s not just my skin, but everything about myself.

So yeah. I’m not your typical fair-skinned, skinny Asian beauty. I’m busty, I have a broad face, I have a button nose, I have small chinky eyes and I wear glasses and It doesn’t matter. Life is not about looking pretty for societal standards. 

***(Although, I have to admit that life can sometimes be easier for conventionally ‘pretty’ people. Well, good for them – but I don’t want to change myself to fit into that…just because.)