Skin Bleaching and Other Ways Korean Women Are Taking Beauty Standards A Bit Too Far

I have pretty pale skin. Some might even say I’m translucent under certain lights. It’s not that I don’t go outside (I do have to walk to my classes, after all, and the underground tunnels I’ve been petitioning for haven’t been approved yet so there’s really no way for me to get around going outside). It’s just that homework is much easier to finish when I don’t have to worry about bees landing on my back or spiders hatching babies in my backpack when I’m not looking or the other potentially dangerous creatures that might be plotting against me while I’m sitting out in the open. I’ve never been a big fan of my skin complexion, simply because in a normal week, I can expect to hear “Honey, you look awfully sick” or “Sugar-muffin, you need to get some sun” at least once (and not only from friendly old ladies, which is what I’m imagining in my head for some reason). It doesn’t take too long to figure out that – in America at least – paleness is not a desired quality.

In places outside of the US, however, this is apparently not the case. According to one Korean vlogger, “many Korean people like [white skin]” and will go through strenuous efforts in order to attain such complexion. Many skin products are infused with sunscreen (which, to be honest, should just be a thing anyway because sun kills, people). Some people will even go to even more extreme measures to lighten their complexion by using whitening creams, which physically bleach the outer layers of skin.

Before I launch into my rant, let me preface it by saying that I am not an anthropologist. In fact, I’ve taken a total of one anthropology class in college and the only valuable piece of information I took away from it was that Bonobo monkeys engage in aggressive sexual behaviors, which is kind of like humans, I think? Or maybe I saw that on the Discovery Channel. Anyway, I highly doubt all Korean women aim to be light skinned or find it to be a signifier of beauty. That would be like saying all American women find muscular athletes that can play guitar and look really great in cowboy hats attractive. While that’s likely 90% true, it is also a very generalized statement.

That being said, the idea of chemically bleaching your body in order to look more “white” is preposterous to me. Humans are not photographs. We should not be “burning and dodging” our own faces to make us look more aesthetically pleasing. We are not pieces of art that can be deconstructed and glued back together, though some plastic surgeons might disagree. White skin should not be the ultimate goal. There are plenty of other ways to make yourself feel more attractive that are less disturbing that skin-bleaching, including…

– Putting a large parrot on your shoulder to distract people from any potential blemishes you may have on your face.

– Same as above but instead of a parrot, a large cobra wearing hipster glasses.

– Wearing no clothes at all (because why would anyone be staring at your face if you are literally walking around naked in public).

– Wrapping your face in a sweater whenever you go out in public (if it works for Amanda Bynes, it works for me).

– Inviting an Oompa Loompa out with you wherever you go so you might look better in comparison.

– Not changing anything about yourself at all because contrary to popular belief, that is completely and totally okay.

I understand every country has their own standards of “beauty,” though. Look on the cover of any American magazine and you’ll find an overly Photoshopped picture of a tan, blond, fairly skinny woman with high cheekbones and an impossibly perfect smile. Rather than try to whiten our skin, Americans try to darken it down to a crisp until we resemble a toasted marshmallow or iced coffee with a little too much cream. If you think about it, tanning is a weird process in itself. When you go to a tanning salon, you are agreeing to sit in an enclosed space and be bombarded with UV rays that will darken your complexion. We are essentially doing the exact opposite of Korean women for the same purpose: to make ourselves look more “beautiful.”

What do you guys think? Is Korea’s “skin bleaching” method a little extreme? Or is it no different than walking into a tanning salon and asking for a “chestnut brown” complexion? I personally think we should just abolish beauty standards and revert back to sitting in sweatpants and t-shirts every day. Maybe I’ll petition it after my underground tunnel proposal gets approved, but that might take awhile.

Image via

  • Sam Stockton

    Firstly, it’s not really Korean women who are “going too far”. It’s American companies that push the idea that “white is beautiful” and put bleaching components into their products.
    Secondly, the desire to be white stems FAR beyond a “culture beauty standard”. It’s an institutionalized standard that started with colonialism. When white Europeans went to South East Asia and settled, they brought racism with them. They pushed the idea that “whiter is better” and that ideology remains in most places today. The reason that whitening products exist at all is because white people created and spread racism and racist ideologies.
    Thirdly, the fact that white, North American people tan is also a product of racism. Black women are constantly hypersexualized and stereotyped. (I highly recommend reading “Queering Black Female Heterosexuality” by Kimberly Springer to gain a bit of understanding on this subject.) They are often shamed or fetishized for being “promiscuous” because that image is forced onto black women. White women will darken their skin to seem “sexy” but don’t have to deal with the stereotypes or racism that black women face because they have white privilege.

    • Alanine Rhenylalanine

      Sam, you are spot on. Well said.

    • Rebecca Emily Darling

      The trend of tanning can actually be directly traced back to Coco Chanel flaunting her tan from traveling rather than covering up to preserve a paler complexion as pretty much all society women had always done up until that point. That was the first time a tan had been seen on such a fashion icon of the “Western world,” and that was when lighter women began tanning on purpose. Personally I think it stuck around because tanning covers up skin imperfections and makes people look slimmer, and because over time culture turned the tables around so that a tan is seen as a sign that someone has the time and luxury to tan (whereas once the opposite was true, just like with the history of what body types in women were perceived as ideal) not because of anything to do with racism. That’s just my perception, however, although definitely the trend of the tan is directly traced back to Coco Chanel. The rest I mostly agree with, other than it definitely is not only or mostly American companies that are making the whitening products; I went to boarding school with many Korean girls who used all kinds of lightening products that were not by American companies.

  • Hilary June

    I have also been semi-lovingly called translucent and have embraced it. I’d rather have healthy skin than skin that is a particular shade of whatever so other people think I look good.
    When I was in Vietnam I was – at first – SHOCKED to see an entire aisle, top to bottom, end to end, of a grocery store filled with whitening creams, masks, make-up, and even sunscreen. I took a ton of photos then got displeased looks from the woman working in that aisle (Sorry! Didn’t mean to offend you, I just think it’s interesting!)
    At first I was like … what? Just … what?

    But like you said “we”, as in a lot of the North American culture, do the same thing. They, as in many Asian cultures, would (and do) think that tanning is absurd, letting the harmful UV rays onto our un-protected skin!? (personally I’m with them on that) just the same way we think: actually putting bleach on your precious skin? having it be absorbed by our body!? (I’m with them on that, too).

    All to look “beautiful”. *sigh

  • Hayley Bhola

    I live in the Caribbean and despite the demographic here being mostly an African/Indian mix, I’ve learned since I was little that being light = pretty. I’ve heard people say multiple times “you’re only pretty because you’re fair”, “I would like him/her if they were lighter” etc. etc. I’ve also seen people constantly bullied by others because their skin tone was especially dark. This desire to be lighter also goes hand in hand to have “white” hair. My hair is medium length because of my Indian heritage and I’ve grown up with many people around me constantly telling me how pretty I was because of my hair and that they wish they had my hair.

    What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just an issue Asian women face. I honestly find it all to be ridiculous. If it’s a personal choice and you’re aware of the risks then by all means go ahead. Most of the time though it’s the pressure from society to be a certain kind of beautiful that goes all the way back to colonialism where the European standard of beauty was considered the most desirable. I’ve had friends who felt pressured enough to bleach their skin despite the adverse effects. If you want long flowing hair because it makes you feel pretty then go ahead. But I know most girls here don’t feel pretty UNLESS they have long flowing hair and light skin.

  • Emily Przylucki Peterson

    The reason why Korean women, and in general Asian women, prefer lighter skin is because of the old connotation that lighter-skinned people didn’t have to labor outside; instead they enjoyed their lives indoors and away from the sun. It has very little to do with being “white” or “western”.

    After having lived in South Korea for many years, I can assure you that the majority of women are most definitely concerned about their skin tone and prefer to have lighter skin than tanned skin. Not many go the way of bleaching, especially because there are a multitude of products nowadays that claim lightening or whitening results without bleach or other harsh chemicals. As you said, sunscreen is the biggest item and is worn almost everyday. This helps keep a more natural skin tone, but a ‘lighter’ version so to say.

    But I would venture a guess that complexion is more important to Koreans than tone of the skin. Having small pores, no acne, smooth skin, and no wrinkles or sun spots is the most important.

    It’s just a different idea of beauty. Doesn’t make it wrong or right.

  • Emily Chionchio

    I wish this whole “tanning makes people look slimmer” attitude would go away. Tanning does not make you appear slimmer, properly fitting clothing does. It does however up your chances of having large chunks of flesh removed due to melanoma.

  • Sarah Williams

    anyone, of any shade of color, that damages their skin to “look better”, needs to work on themselves from the inside. I’m white as can be and am ok with that. I’m 32 and constantly told how I look like I’m in my early 20’s. yes please. I much rather be healthy and youthful than scaly and cancerous.

  • Laura McGlynn

    I hear you my fellow Blister Sister, I’m pale too and wrote this article recently about my trip to thailand. You must have Irish Genes :)

    Great article :) x

  • Megha Hirani

    “White skin should not be the ultimate goal.”

    I think you should have made this the point of your article, maybe you could have analysed how and why we got to a point where having white skin was desirable in non-western countries. If you think paleness is not desirable in Western countries then why aren’t there more models of varied race?
    This article came across as really quite condescending; it’s easy for you as a white woman to tell other people to just be themselves when you are held up as the ideal of beauty and have never had to face the constant barrage of imagery in the media that has never and will never really reflect someone like me.

    I wish Sam Stockton wrote this instead of you. Maybe instead of just relying on your college classes, you could actually read something that could educate you on the experiences of non-white women in society.

    Thanks for the tips by the way, I’ll be sure to try and use them to distract people from the colour of my skin.

  • Michelle Chang

    I think that maybe you should read something else about Korean culture besides “ranting” about how korean women are going too far with skin bleaching. Korean women look’s are constantly nitpicked by others (other korean women, men, their mothers/fathers). Many women feel the pressure to look perfect or beautiful because their parents, friends, and etc constantly point out their flaws. I know this because I’m Korean and my mother constantly nitpicks my figure. Skin bleaching is only the tip of the iceberg of what certain Korean women would do to achieve their idea of beauty. I found it really offensive that you decided to only tackle one beauty issue without acknowledging or perhaps even knowing the culture that breeds that kind of behavior.

    Finally, I’d like to point out that you are using the American standard of beauty to judge a completely different culture’s beauty standard.

    • Kirsten Wilcock

      I don’t understand how she’s being offensive. Why is it offensive to say that people shouldn’t bleach their skin and should feel happy the way they are? She raises a valid point and it isn’t her responsibility to delve in to all the nasties of an Americanised culture.

      • Michelle Chang

        Because she is judging a foreign culture by American beauty standards. Also, I’d like to mention that Korean culture is not as “Americanized” as many think it is. It has its own vast history that far predates the conception of the United States. It adopted many American things, but turned them into something very Korean.
        As other commenters have left before, Korea and other asian countries like it have a long history of paler skin being considered the epitome of beauty. If you’re going to critique one of a certain cultures’ “nasties” (as you mentioned) then it’s important to mention the others. I’m not supporting skin bleaching, but I believe people can do whatever they want with their own skin, even in South Korea.

  • Jane Yu DiCaprio

    I don’t think “skin bleaching” is done nowadays as there are so many other alternatives, such as cosmetic laser treatments and a bunch of other whitening products (American and European cosmetic companies actually develop whitening products especially for the Asian market, believe it or not. Walk into any Asian mall and you’ll see things like “Dior Snow White” serum or “Lancome Blanc Expert” hydrating cream or “Le Blanc De Chanel” facial wash.) I understand that this article was meant to tell people to love themselves for who they are but I can’t shake the feeling of new imperialism in the writing. Culture differ from culture. It’s a very very very different world here in Asia. While I appreciate that you mean well, I would like that you do further research before thinking that Koreans, or Asians in general, go around burning their faces.

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  • Hollie Carmack

    I’ve only been using it two DermalMD Skin Lighting Serum weeks but it seems to be fading some of my
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  • nutriti0nista .

    I find it interesting how the pursuit of a fairer complexion is always such a bothersome subject for white people (BTW, I am white). A century ago, tanned skin was a means of identifying field workers and labourers. It then became a means of identifying the wealthy who spent their summers cruising around Europe. In recent times, I think we’ve seen another shift: tanned skin has become associated with “low class” celebrities (Kim K). I would say that the Western world is starting to embrace pale skin. The Brazilian glamazon look was popular 10 years ago, but times have definitely changed. Perhaps South Korean culture is doing its part to “influence” us Westerners? As for skin “bleaching”: there are many different ways of “bleaching” the skin – most of which do not involve bleach, incidentally, or even harsh chemicals. Most of the skin lightening agents in South Korean products are natural compounds (kojic acid, licorice root, and so on) – these aren’t terribly harmful as long as a high level SPF is used to protect the skin afterwards. These products take quite a bit of time to work, and don’t render extreme MJ esque results. The “professional” way to do it is to have an IV drip inserted and have gluthathione pumped into you at a clinic. Of course, there are always going to be people who will “abuse” skin lightening in this manner – just as many Westerners abuse sunbeds as you say (although by and large, UV rays are a lot more harmful and deleterious to health in the long run). But, I don’t believe South Korean women want to be “white”; rather, I think they desire a poreless, glowing complexion – something that’s symptomatic of their notoriously perfectionist culture. The BB cream came straight out of South Korea – many of these contain lightening agents, and they are very popular in America among people of all ethnic backgrounds. I often see people trying to frame skin whitening (or “bleaching”) as a colonial relic whilst blaming a certain group of people or culture for “going too far” with it. To me, that comes across as a little insidious (I’m very sure that wasn’t the message you were putting out there) – whereas the skin lightening trend may have originally been “influenced” by interactions with Caucasian people/Western culture, I think it’s evolved into something quite separate from that now.

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