Fair isn’t fair

So this post will be a little bit different to my others ones simple because of I will be discussing something I am already somewhat familiar with thanks to growing up with a Filipino mother. My first introduction to skin whitening lotions occurred when I was 9 years old and standing in a lotion aisle at a supermarket in Manila. I was dumbfounded… It was one entire aisle dedicated to lotion, most of which had skin whitening properties. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how this was such a popular and commonplace product. After wandering around shopping malls and getting stared at ad complemented by almost everyone because I had fair skin for a Filipino, and then watching television and realizing that half of the celebrities were also half Filipino and half white like me, it became apparent that being white and pale had been fetishized within the Philippines.



While exploring these Nivea commercials on YouTube it seems clear that this is not just some fad in the Philippines but a cultural aspect across numerous Asian countries including India, South Korea and Pakistan. And it’s not just lotion either, the continent of Asia apparently spends a collective $18 billion a year on skin whitening products including lotions, pills, lasers, creams and surgeries for both men and women. Apparently nearly 40 percent of women in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines used skin whitening and lightening products. It’s safe to say that these commercials are extremely commonplace in Asian media.


My first impression of these skin whitening lotion commercials is that Filipinos and Indians are clearly more comfortable with trying to alter their appearances and secondly I think that it is a little bit racist and unsafe. Additionally I get the impression that there are a lot of fair famous people like the celebrities featured in the commercials. However, looking further into the cultural contexts of these commercials it appears that it is more about class than anything else. If you are fair then people assume you are rich and stay inside all day, but if you are darker (regardless of genetics) it is assumed that you are poor and work in fields all day.

It is argued to have historical origins during the Han period where it was ideal for high class women to be almost stark white. Some historians also attribute this trend to Western influence especially after World War II as some may have seen Americans as the ‘winners’ and you know… everyone wants to be a winner. Some countries like China take it a whole step further, women go swimming in full clothing, and walk everywhere with umbrellas or giants hats to protect them from the sun.


I find it extremely intriguing how some of these Nivea commercials accurately represent these standards and how in depth they are in various Asian cultures such as that of the Philippines or India. Below is a independent documentary about skin whitening in India and how the ideals are strong enough for grounds of discrimination.




  1. Hi there,
    This was such an interesting post! I have travelled to Thailand a few times, and having naturally quite dark skin myself, some of the locals couldn’t fathom why I was happy with my skin tone. One woman even said to me ‘why would you like to be dark? It looks like you’ve been working in the fields all day… Real princesses are fair and indoors!’
    I think this is such a crazy ideal – in countries such as our own and the US it is considered sexy to have brown, tanned skin whereas it is almost frowned upon in a variety of Asian countries.
    I also thought it was really interesting when you said that people in places like the Philippines and India are totally fine with the fact that they would like to whiten their skin – how it is more accepted there. It would be a great research topic to explore why this could be! Are there different cultural norms there rather than in other nations?


  2. This is such an interesting post. I saw a recent Facebook status from a friend who is from the UK and working in the Philippines and, as a very pasty white Leeds girl, she was amazed at these ‘whitening creams’ that her co-workers were buying. I find it fascinating how as Australian’s we put ourselves at risk of melanoma for our idea of ‘tanned beauty’, and then the complete opposite can be seen in Asian culture. I wonder how much this has to do with celebrity culture? Like you said, there seem to be a lot of ‘fair famous people’ in Asia. The converse can be seen here with our media bombarded by bronzed bombshells. I think its also interesting that Nivea, a German company, makes these culturally specific products. I’m sure you wouldn’t see Nivea Whitening Cream in the cosmetics aisle of Woolworths, nor would you find Nivea Fake Tan on the shelf at a supermarket in the Phillipines. Good business? Or are they helping to perpetuate this cultural difference?


  3. Wow this is such an interesting idea. My first experience with whitening cream was actually in Australia when i was in a Chinese food shop and there was little purple packets of whitening cream just near the counter. I literally started laughing as i thought it was a joke, and grabbed my friend showing her what it was. You see i am white as, people at school used to tell me that I glowed (nice yeah?) and my skin colour is just totally not the ideal. Although I have to admit I am probably way too lazy to tan, I would prefer to have darker skin.
    I think it is so incredible that just on the other side of the world, this ideal is completely reversed. This is a great topic and would be such a good research topic.


  4. Wow what an interesting topic. I had no idea such items even existed!

    This topic seems to parallel the procedures becoming more and more popular in Asia – that is blepharoplasties and epicanthoplasties surgery – eye tweaks that devoid people of their racially significant facial structures.

    I think that whilst this may sound crazy to us, pressures of Asian society to achieve wealth and prosperity that is so much a part of engrained Western teaching has filtered its way down through Asian culture. Like touched above, whilst they’re aren’t many people who would change their eye structure to try and look less Anglo in Australia, who hasn’t felt the pressure to get out under the sun during summer for that golden glow?




  5. Hi! I found your post really interesting. I didn’t realise it was such a big thing to whiten your skin with products and such. I remember when my sister-in-law who’s Indian but born in Australia, told me once that Indian men find pale skin a sign of beauty. At that moment I just thought it was funny how I’ve been living in a country that a majority want to be tan in and how it was opposite for people in India – never did I actually realise it was regarding class. In my own naivety I didn’t look much deeper into this or expand the thought that it wasn’t just Indian men and it wasn’t just a sign of beauty. I look forward to reading more!


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