Sparkling White

I know skin whitening in China is a commonly discussed issue, I heard a (terrible!) comedy sketch the week before last on the ironies of Irish women slapping on the fake tan while Chinese women hide from the sun. Still, in my mind it was the issue was kind of at the extremes, women painting their faces pure white to go to the matchmaker (information gleaned exclusively from Disney), women dangerously bleaching their skin and getting cosmetic whitening surgery.

I went to the supermarket skincare section the other day though and realised that Nivea’s flagship range in China is the “Sparkling White” range of products. In fact, I’m finding it difficult to come across any other kind of Nivea product. I drank some disgustingly sweet milk this morning, and the Chinese girl on the package had skin whiter than mine. Yesterday, my TA and I were in a class ten minutes walk from our school’s main building and she dreaded the walk back in the sun. As is so often the case, the extreme skin-whitening cases we hear about are just the dramatic spillover of all Chinese women being told all the time that there’s something a bit wrong with their appearance.

One of the advantages of finding yourself in an unfamiliar culture is seeing the small cruelties you’ve become blind to in your own society. Here, Nivea marketing whitening products reinforces women’s insecurity about their skin which, in the majority of cases, can never actually be changed. The same way skin companies in the West consistently remind older women that despite the impossibility of getting younger, they should remain vigilantly anti-ageing.

The market constructs, or at least bolsters our insecurities for the sake of its own profits. Once we’ve accepted that that’s a normal motivation, it makes the most sense to target things that can never be solved; age, skin colour, body shape. When you’re locked in to negative perceptions of yourself you keep buying. It’s a principle of most advertising, I suppose, but seeing a different manifestation of the issue made me consider the issue again.


2 thoughts on “Sparkling White

  1. Without meaning to comment-spam, I really appreciate this. The discourse at the edges of this issue is so often spun into a kind of equivocating humour, where fake tan is the Western equivalent of skin-whitening, usually with a little pseudo-history about class differences thrown in for good measure (“poor people used to work in the sunlight! now rich people go on holiday!”). The comparison with anti-ageing creams is far more thorough and instructive.

    The hierarchical binary that makes “white” more valuable than anything else is really pretty markedly dissimilar to an occasional preference for a tan in the privileged Western world.

  2. I feel the same way. It continues to make me pretty uncomfortable here – even outweighing the ego boost that comes from being told I’m beautiful all the time. And comment spam all you like, I won’t object!

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