Why Asian men use skin-whitening products in greater numbers

Jose was just one of many youths I met during my ethnographic research as part of the Chemical Youth Project. This project sought to document the chemicals used by young people in their daily lives, from cigarettes to cosmetics.

While skin whitening for women is a common practice in the Philippines and other parts of Asia and around the world, I was surprised to discover that many young men also use whitening products. These products are available in a variety of retail outlets, including shopping malls and sari-sari stores.

This development is not exclusive to the Philippines. In a study from 2015, 16.7% of male university students in 26 countries with low- and middle-income levels used skin-whitening products. In many Asian countries, the figure was even higher: 17.4% for India, 25.4% for the Philippines and 69.5% for Thailand.

The male cosmetics market in the Asia-Pacific region was estimated to be $2.1 billion in 2016. This figure is likely to include a large amount of whiteners. A study from 2010 reported that 61% of all cosmetics sold in India have a whitening action.

Views of Whiteness

What is the meaning of this phenomenon? It is important to note that men have been displaying a preference for a whiter skin tone in Asia since ancient times.

In Heian Japan (794-1185 AD) as well as Ming China (1365-1644), attractive men were described as having pale or white skinIn an undated Philippine epic, the hero uses a shield to cover his face so the sun’s rays won’t “lessen” his handsome appearance.

Researchers suggest that fair skin is a sign of class in many cultures. Nina Jablonski, an American anthropologist, explains in her book Living Color from 2012.

Untanned skin is a sign of the privileged classes that are spared outdoor work. Dark-skinned individuals were vilified because they belonged to the working class who worked in the sun.

Others have suggested that the association of whiteness with purity became conflated with the idea that white skin signifies spiritual and physical superiority.

Arguably, the colonial encounter lent another meaning to white skin, making it a marker of racial – not just class – distinction. Filipinos, for instance, were commonly referred to by the Americans as their “little brown brothers,” signifying an unequal fraternity based on height and skin color.

Changing notions of masculinity means being a man is no longer incompatible with the use of cosmetics. Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

But some scholars have also pointed out that many Asian people don’t necessarily aspire for a “Caucasian whiteness” but a “cosmopolitan whiteness” that transcends race and signifies mobility across national borders.

Like the emergence of the “metrosexual” (urban men who enjoy interests traditionally associated with women and homosexual men), the rise of male-specific whitening products may be explained by the demographic and social changes that have given rise to the view of the body as, in the words of UK sociologist Chris Shilling, “a project that should be worked at and accomplished as part of an individual’s self-identity.”

It can also be attributed to changing notions of masculinity that are no longer incompatible with the use of cosmetics or beauty products.

Promises with side effects

Today, cosmetics companies, through mass-mediated, star-studded advertising, build on these conditions. In India, Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan made headlines by endorsing “Fair and Handsome” skin whitening cream in 2008.

In South Korea, K-pop superstars promote homegrown brands such as The Face Shop and Etude House and serve as ambassadors of a Korean male aesthetic: slim, youthful-looking, and fair-skinned.

While it is insightful to look at these historical and global trends, it’s also important to look at the individual users themselves and the role whitening products play in their lives.

The country’s cosmetics firms have enlisted South Korea’s male K-pop icons. Bobby Yip/Reuters

In my fieldwork, I met many young men who were motivated by perceived social and economic gain: 20-year-old call center agent Edwin wanted to be more attractive to girls.

Jose, for his part, wanted to be a flight attendant someday. He told me, “If you’re fair-skinned, you’re noticeable, and that gives you a advantage.”

Their assumptions find empirical support in studies that suggest men with lighter skin are more likely to get higher-paying jobs. In environments where young people only have their bodies as “capital,” resorting to modification is understandable.

But from a public health perspective, the proliferation of whitening products raises questions of efficacy and safety, particularly in Asian countries without strong regulation.

For all their promised effects, there’s actually no proof that many products actually work, and many of them have potentially grave side effects. Mercury, for instance, is a known toxin, but it’s still found in skin whitening products in India, even though it has long been banned in many other countries.

Is it right?

Alongside these health concerns, the moral debate continues. By shaping the way people view their skin – and that of others – will its color, which is determined by genes, occupation, and lifestyle, become another layer of inequality?

And as with any other social issue, there has been dissent. Across Asia, a growing number of voices challenging the “colourism” they have to live with. Blogger Aswasthi Thomas, for instance, recently declared:

I’m Indian, I’m dark, and I don’t care.

But what these campaigns sometimes forget is that the quest for distinction through physical appearance is probably as old as humanity itself. And it’s unlikely to go away, especially when it is useful for people in their everyday lives.

Even so, as desires for dermatological perfection become increasingly commodified – and as skin becomes subjected to a host of chemicals – the point about restraint and reflection is well taken.

Indeed, as more and more men and women embrace the idea that “fair is handsome”, we need a deeper conversation about the motivations that underwrite the phenomenon of skin whitening, and the meaning of (un)fair skin.

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