The unfortunate reality of some of the more dramatic beauty trends is that not everyone can afford them. In developing countries where most people cannot afford some procedures, regulations may not always be as strongly enforced as they ought to be.
In the Philippines, while there is the FDA to regulate and approve ‘safe’ items, there is also a fair amount of products available that are extremely unsafe and causing controversy. A great example of this is skin whitening products, there are a lot of skin whitening products that have high levels of mercury in them. According to Dr. Bessie Antonio, president of the Philippine Society of Clinical and Occupational Toxicology (PSCOT), “Skin contact with mercury-added cosmetics can cause serious dermal problems, including discoloration, inflammation, itchiness and tiny bumps … can eventually damage the brain and the kidneys.’’
While many products have been recalled or made illegal it still remains that those products will be available and appeal to both extremists and some poorer persons, thus there are serious cases of skin disfigurement.
Many countries have had issues with with counterfeit botox and illegal surgeries, for example in Thailand there is an abundance of illegal practitioners that have little to no training and are cheap and therefore targeted towards the lower classes. In 2012 Thai actress Athitiya Eiamyai, 33, died due to a botched filler injection in the buttocks by an unlicensed practitioner.
While a lot of the more extreme beauty trends may be treated as normal and trivial procedures in some cultures it is pretty shocking to see what desperate persons will do to be beautiful. A South Korean lady named Hang Mioku became obsessed with silicone injections. After using regular silicone she started using black market silicone injections, and then eventually switched to cooking oil which ultimately left her face dramatically enlarged and permanently disfigured.
The ugly side of cultures with high levels of cosmetic alteration is unfortunately disfigurement and sometimes death.
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.