Changing Skins… Different Shades of Perception

Changing Skins... Different Shades of Perception

Skin colour is beautiful and varied. Yes. Moving from Malaysia to Oz highlighted varying perceptions to colour for one Mook.

Growing up in Malaysia and then moving to Australia, I’ve seen first-hand a contrast in mindsets about skin colour. I had an uncle who used to tease me about my duskier skintone; my cousins – his daughters – were all naturally fair. As children we were often told to stay out of the sun, and that a tan was undesirable. Twenty years later in another country, my Aussie girlfriends gush about how lucky I am, how they wish they had my nut-brown skin…

Photo: Non-Resident Indian

Now, as much as I enjoy the rituals of beauty – practising winging my eyeliner, applying blackest black mascara, trying on different shades of lipstick – one thing I just do not get is why anyone would want to drastically change their skin colour. Spring is in the air Down Under and, in anticipation of the swimsuit season, many ladies are booking their spray tan appointments. In fact, spray tans are de rigeur for any event from a night out with the girls to weddings. Never mind that spray tans usually end up looking more “Oompa-Loompa Orange” than “Tahitian Bronze”.

On the other hand, whitening products are as commonplace in Malaysia as tanning products are in Australia. I remember an advertisement some years ago that portrayed a woman with “darker” skin running to catch the train, but was ignored by the conductor. The train leaves without her. Cue miracle skin-lightening cream and the same woman, now three shades lighter, is late again, running to catch the train — and wouldn’t you know it, the conductor graciously gets the train driver to stop for her and even helps her on-board! (Gag.)

Skin colour isn’t so weird. You know what’s weird? Wearing a dress that’s an exact match of your skin colour. That’s a little weird.

I’m pleased to report that advertisement caused some outrage and was pulled from the air. Sadly, those products still remain top sellers. In fact, few brands in Malaysia — dare I say, in many parts of Asia as well – market even ‘regular’ moisturiser or facial cleanser or skincare lotion without some vague promise that an added benefit would be lighter skin. Then, there are even the more aggressive products designed specifically to ‘whiten’ skin. The cautionary tales of women becoming fatally sick from constantly using sun beds or dodgy whitening creams don’t seem to be enough to deter many others from chasing an arbitrary ideal of beauty.

Why is it so hard for some of us to embrace our natural skin colour? Flip open any fashion/beauty magazine in Malaysia and you’ll notice that some of the models portrayed have light hair and light eyes (an uncommon physical trait amongst the majority of the population) and almost all will have fair skin. Historically, pale skin is equated with affluence, tanned skin with labourers and farmers who have to work under the sun all day. It’s an ideal of beauty that is associated with class then; an antiquated notion that not just Malaysia, but many other Asian countries, are finding very hard to shake.

Australia doesn’t fare much better in terms of representing a variety of beauties. Today’s Australia is a melting pot of peoples from many cultural backgrounds – yet representation in the mainstream media is still overwhelmingly Anglocentric, enhanced with golden spray tans, of course. Summer rolls around and few would be caught dead with pale, milky-white legs peeking out from under floral dresses. We are constantly bombarded with advertising for self-tanning products and, yes, spray tan salons do a roaring trade all year round. Yet it can be difficult to find foundation darker than a medium shade, even at leading beauty counters. What a contradiction!

These not-entirely-subtle prejudices aren’t just in the mainstream either. How often have we heard that you can’t be a card-carrying member of the Gothic subculture if you lack moon-white alabaster skin? Yes, skin colour is intrinsically a part of identity – not just our own as an individual, but also how we identify with the cultural and social collectives. But no matter if you’re an ebony empress, bronzed bombshell, alabaster angel – or any shade in between – remember that somebody out there thinks your skin colour is beautiful. Perhaps you should too.