Friday, May 14, 2010

Living dark in a white world

It’s a weird feeling to be travelling in countries where virtually every face is dark-skinned, yet all the images on billboards and TV advertising are resolutely white.
Even the storefront mannequins and baby dolls are blond-haired and blue-eyed in Vietnam, where I recently travelled. If dolls are the way a little girl begins to imagine the adult world, what does it mean to an Asian child when no doll looks anything like her?
In Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, many of the young women now cover themselves from head to toe to prevent the sun from darkening their skin. Wearing jazzed-up face masks that have become a fashion staple in the country, the girls sweat it out in 35-degree heat wearing jeans, long-sleeved jackets, winter gloves and masks to shield their skin.
“It’s very hot!” one young woman told me from behind her flannel face mask. She was working the tourist beach at Hoi An on a scorcher of a day, running out onto the sand every few minutes to try to convince sun-seeking foreigners to rent beach chairs from her for the day (a highly competitive business, as it turns out).
“But I don’t want to get dark,” she added. “In Vietnam, we think it’s more beautiful to have white skin.”
Hey, we’ve all got our dreams. Vanity, thy name is woman.
But there’s a reason for being brown. Darker skin is less susceptible to sunburn, which is why people native to hot countries like Vietnam are generally darker than those from cold countries like Sweden. The basic biology of skin colour has little to do with the cruel realities of racism, but count it as a very disturbing development when any race learns to hate its own skin colour.
Women the world over have long engaged in acts of self-hatred in their quest for “beauty,” of course; nothing new about that. But for a whole nation of young women to have defined beauty as a skin colour that isn’t theirs - that’s just plain sad.
Go into the cosmetics section of any Vietnamese store and you’ll find row upon row of skin-whitening products for women. The bigger stores have whole sections devoted to “anti-melanin” creams and lotions, each promising whiter, brighter skin.
Pond’s, L’Oreal, Clinique, Nivea - all the big names in global cosmetics are selling extensive lines of whitening products in Vietnam. Here in Canada, the dream marketed in our cosmetics aisles is of eternal youth, but in Vietnam it’s all about being whiter.
More brilliant minds than mine have dissected the issues of power, race, sexism, colonialism and all those other heavy hitters that you’d probably find at the root of all this. No doubt the series of events leading to the phenomenon of the modern-day Vietnamese cosmetics counter were decades in the making, and complex in their origins.
But some of it is easy enough to understand, even for us average thinkers.
Maybe the reason that all the dolls and mannequins are Caucasian is simply because that’s what the big Vietnamese factories are manufacturing for export to the developed world, so that’s what’s most affordable to sell locally. Maybe the truth is that almost all the dolls and mannequins being manufactured anywhere in the world are white ones.
The giant store billboards in places like Ho Chi Minh City, with their ubiquitous images of languid white-European models looking great in clothes - they’re the identical ads we see over here. What motivation is there for a big fashion company to change its models to better suit a Vietnamese market, when everywhere else in the world accepts those same white-centric images without question?
That’s ultimately the grand revelation, I suppose: That we’re all being sold an ideal of white skin.
It’s more noticeable in a place like Vietnam, because the contrast between the ads overhead and the people on the street is just too ludicrous to go unnoticed.
Then again, try to recall ever seeing an Asian or aboriginal face in a major fashion campaign in Canada. Or a dark-skinned doll in a toy store that didn’t just look like a token brown-plastic version of a white doll. And that’s right here in Canada, where almost a third of the population isn’t white.
If I ever decide to launch a campaign for the right of every little girl to have an alternative to blonde-haired, blue-eyed dolls, at least I’ll be able to start close to home.

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