Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Political Cosmetics: KOREAN Skin Bleaching

Skin whitening (or ‘bleaching’, as I like to refer to it) is one of the BIGGEST MONEY MAKING INDUSTRIES IN ASIA.

From Japan, to China, to India, to South-East Asia, and back up to South Korea again, skin whitening is BIG BUCKS FOR LANCOME (and also Hera Whitening, Korean cosmetics brand fronted by Korean actress Kim Tae-Hee 김태희)
(Kim Tae-hee 김태희wants you to whiten your skin...look how sad the ajumma looks! ㅋㅋ)

I honestly didn’t know that much about skin whitening before I came to Korea because AUSTRALIANS LOVE FAKE TANNING, and real tanning, and just the general ‘browning’ of everything (ok, that sounds kind of….unsavoury).  

So prior to moving to Korea I kept a box of rubber gloves, and I would wake up in the morning and have a shower (and maybe exfoliate) and then I would put on my rubber gloves and try to apply FAKE TAN LOTION to my body evenly (and without streaks).  Ok, there were lots of streaks.  I was never very good at applying fake tan.  Anyway, the reason why I was applying fake tan was partly because AUSTRALIANS LIKE THE BEACH A LOT.  If you live in Sydney, and you are super-white, you kind of look a bit UNAUSTRALIAN.  Ok, that is hyperbole, but I did feel that my nerdy-whiteness was slightly UnAustralian.  And, I felt a bit bullied.  And after the summer break, everyone in Law School seemed to have these really killer tans which meant they were ‘kind of cool’ (I think some of them were also possibly using fake tan).  Some of my friends in Sydney even went to 'Spray tan parties', where they drank champagne and then stepped into booth to be shot with a hose fueled with brown-gooey-tanning-agents. Hilarious.
Obviously, it was quite a shock for me when I realized that EVERYONE IN KOREA IS DOING THE EXACT OPPOSITE.  Korean MEN AND WOMEN invest quite a substantial amount of time and money procuring whitening products, and doing their research on what are the top whitening products on the market (there are TOO MANY products to choose from, and it is a very competitive industry).

Korean people BLEACHING THEIR SKIN feels CONTROVERSIAL, because Western countries have spent a long time ENACTING LAWS AND REGULATIONS to make it SAFE AND EQUITABLE for people to be NON-WHITE. 

Is it ok to be black?  YES. 

Is it ok to be green, pink, blue, beige, cappucino?  YES. 

ONE COLOR IS POPULAR IN KOREA, and that color is (unfortunately) WHITE.  (ㅠ.ㅠ  *sad face*)

(skin-whitening advertisement from INDIA)


Here is why ‘white’ people (i.e. Europeans, Americans, Australians, and some Russians) LOVE TO TAN:

·        In many European countries, tanned people supposedly look richer, and tanned skin often gives the impression that the individual does not work in an office cubicle.  So in Europe, a lot of Italians and French (and some Brits) like to tan in the winter AND the summer because other people will think;

‘Wow, Pierre must have spent all summer on a yacht, he looks SO TANNED’. 

So the equation for white people might look a little like this:

Tanned = has a lot of free time = must not need a job = must have inherited wealth = must spend European winters in Morocco or in the Maldives = socially high position
(gosh... I need to tan NOW NOW noooww)

Here is why Koreans WANT TO LOOK WHITE:

·        Whiter skin implies that you are from Seoul, and therefore a ‘city person with a better education and better chances of employment success’.  Koreans often unfairly associate darker skin with farm work, lower skilled labour jobs, and lower education levels. Darker skin in Korea is sometimes associated with rural provinces and underdeveloped villages from the 1950s (Korea used to have an agricultural economy), and thus Koreans in Seoul might marginalize darker-skinned Koreans like this:  

·        Darker skin = rural person = less education = less money =  lower social position


(Even Korean dudes are trying to stay indoors and use whitening products...)

* Whiter skin is also associated with the USA, and Korea is quite obsessed with American culture and movies.  (Thus, Koreans sometimes aspire to some so-called 'American features', such as 'white-face', and 'perky chest')

It isn’t even a conscious decision to bleach OR NOT TO bleach your skin in Korea.  99% of Korean moisturisers appear to contain some kind of whitening agent.  Without even noticing (much) my skin color has CHANGED (slightly) FREAKISHLY. There are really not that many varying shades if you want to buy cosmetics in Korea, and most brands only stock two colors (if that) ; WHITE, and WHITER (not kidding).

BEHOLD: This is a picture of an Australian girl (myself) at my birthday party in Sydney, 2008:
(Novotel Sydney, October 2008)
(OF COURSE, the color of the picture may be HIGHLY INFLUENCED BY THE LIGHTING...I agree)

... Now, let's fast-forward to 2010, SEOUL 청담동에서:

      It could be powder, but I do actually think the skin has changed as a result of using Korean products.  (Note that the Korean in this photo is an athlete, and thus has spent much time outdoors)

and NOW... to 2011, SEOUL, 영등포:
(Oops... I am upside down)

Although, FLASH could have had a noteable impact on the shots to distort the color.

Clearly, the skin pigment has changed SOMEHOW due to skin bleaching chemicals in the face-wash or moisturisers that are being sold in Korea.  I almost look TRANSPARENT.  AND YES, I do in fact check the labels on products I buy (mostly). 

Or, alternatively, I HAVE NOT BEEN OUTDOORS FOR TWO YEARS...Ok, that is the less likely rationale.

I can't really be sure if changing your skin color is absolutely a NEGATIVE practice in Korea, but we should acknowledge that it is happening, and that it has some kind of underlying political message (although, KOREANS DO NOT THINK THAT COSMETICS ARE A POLITICAL ISSUE...It's only me).  By virtue of the products that are available in Korea, everyone often seems to end up wearing similar clothes, drinking the same coffee, and using the same whitening moisturiser.  I think it might be good for Korea if there were standards of beauty that were not linked to 'whiteness'.

Here we have THE LAST MOHICAN... The LAST TANNED WOMAN living in Korea:
Lee Hyori 이효리:

P.S. After posting this article I received a few comments via email and facebook regarding the arguments presented in this post.

Here are some of the responses:

(Anonymous Korean girl):

"Too much generalizing i think, which itself could be very controversial making people feel slightly uncomfortable reading this. People go crazy about tanning as well. :) If you are looking for tanning products, go to etude house, faceshop .... You know, those brands with reasonably priced products with super quality. They have bronzer, tanning oil and even tanning tissues. you can find typical tanning oil in your 동 too. I guess it could be difficult to find tanning products in department stores because the target customer for those shops are 돈많은 아줌마들 ㅋㅋ maybe you should try clarins, biotherm or kiehl. I dont like those brands though :/ "

(Anonymous Clinique salesgirl, Australia):

"I like this. it's odd really, i've worked with clinique now for some time and a lot of asian women (sorry to generalise, but i'm not sure where abouts in asia the clients come from) always purchase powder and foundations a lot lighter than their skin tones, whilst caucasion women buy powder and foundation that is darker than their skin tones! crazy!

Also, it used to be popular in the old english days to have a 'tan' as it implied that you were wealthy enough to afford a holiday by the sea etc.. but now there is a common notion that having a tan implies you are from a lower socio economic group within society, as it implies your work is outdoors, i.e. manual labour on farms.. which seems to be what you have perceived in Korean trends?
anyway.. i think everyone should wear a foundation that MATCHES their skin, then they will look their best, despite the cultural implications of 'natural' looking!! :)  "

(Anonymous Korean man):

"Koreans don't just judge people on skin color.  We also judge people based on hairstyle and fashion".


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  3. Dear Luigina,

    Thank you for your enlightening article. I agree with you, that we should acknowledge that Korean skin bleaching is happening. Right now, there is too much hush and denial about it. Without this knowledge, many innocent people can get hurt.

    Foreigners living in Japan, have been surprised to find their skin being bleached shades lighter, too. On a forum, some were desperately asking for skin care products that didn't bleach.

    Your conclusion that "99% of Korean moisturisers appear to contain some kind of whitening agent", seems right to me. The BBC has reported: "In Japan all skin creams contain a lightening agent."

    I believe you are right, that Koreans changing their natural skin colour, is a political message. People are wondering how it's possible for such light-skinned people to all of a sudden come from there, where there weren't any before.

    I find that many people did not know about Korean skin bleaching. Sharing your article, really helps. I appreciate what you've done.

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  6. why do you want to be white? 2007/9/10 14:35

    Are there any beauty products in Japan that actually DON'T make you pasty and pale!! I already look like a ghost after living here for 3 years! I want to be able to buy a quality moisturiser without smearing bleach-like chemicals all over my face..
    by Why?

    Re: 2 weeks in Japan. Advice Please 2011/10/3 19:36

    i cant use many products in japan for lotion since they use alot of bleaching or things similar in their formula.
    by ZimziGirl88

  7. May I ask what products did you use to make you so pale, and could you please give a list of those products :)

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. May I ask which product(s) have you found successful in helping with skin lightening? I play watersports in which the sun magnifies when you are on water.

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