Monday, February 14, 2022

Light skin preference in Malaysia


Light skin, especially for women, is idealized much more in Asian advertisements than in American ones. Tamannaah Bhatia Lakme (Wikicommons)



In Malaysia, like elsewhere in Asia, there is a general preference for lighter skin, as shown by a recent analysis of Malaysian blog entries (Izazi 2021). Typical entries include the following:


Many girls desire light skin these days, when its actually natural for Asians to have a light brown skin... I wonder why are people so crazy about having light skin?


Most women around me are obsessed with light skin.


Malaysians (not just Malays) are obsessed with light skin. I guess it's not just Malaysians, but Asian as a whole


Izazi (2021, pp. 191-194) attributes this colorism to European influence, beginning with colonialism and continuing with Western domination of the media, particularly in fashion and entertainment. As Izazi herself notes, however, this explanation doesn't fit well with certain facts:


·         In advertisements, lighter skin has greater appeal to Asians, especially Asian women, than to white Americans (Krishen et al. 2014).

·         The ideal skin color is actually darker in American beauty advertisements than in Chinese beauty advertisements (Xie and Zhang 2013).


Of course, if you go back in time, to the turn of the 20th century, you'll find that that the ideal skin color was just as white in the United States as in China. All of that changed with the tanning fad, which took off in the 1920s and darkened the desired skin tone for both men and women throughout the West (Segrave 2005).


The "European influence" explanation is harder to reconcile with the fact that Asian societies preferred lighter skin in women long before European colonialism (Frost 1988; van den Berghe and Frost 1986). In the case of the Malay peoples of Malaysia and Indonesia, this preference has been noted by ethnographers going back to the 19th century:


The color of the western Malays is light yellow-brown with more or less of an olive tint.  The pale yellow shade is therefore the color preferred by the Malays; they call it bingai.  The Westerner compares the fairness of the bosom of his beloved with the whiteness of snow, the Malay with the yellow of gold; nothing is more beautiful to him.  It is therefore not surprising that he tries to heighten the pale yellow color by artificial means. (Wilken 1893, p. 303)


... the Balinese admire a smooth, clear skin the colour of gold, and pretty girls have a mortal dread of being sunburned, so they do not like to go unnecessarily into the sun. (Covarrubias 1950, p. 118)


Originally, the moon is supposed to have been a human being, a girl, with an especially white skin.   ... When the Toradja [of Sulawesi Island] speaks of the moon, he thinks of a beautiful woman.  The beauty of a woman on earth is often compared to that of the moon. (Adriani and Kruijt 1950, p. 572)


This preference was, and still is, much stronger for women than for men, and not simply because physical appearance is less important for men than for women. In fact, there was a tendency among the female Malaysian bloggers to prefer darker-skinned men:


Dark-skinned men are sexy


Light-skinned men looks like a mummy's boy. Dark-skinned men look independent. I like that. (Izazi 2021, pp. 212-213)


This finding parallels that of Harvey (1995) who found that fair-skinned African American men are seen as less masculine than their darker-skinned counterparts. Conversely, fair-skinned African American women are seen as more feminine than their darker-skinned counterparts (Abrams et al., 2020). Wagatsuma (1967) reported a similar finding among Japanese women:


With only a few exceptions, the women interviewed voiced the opinion that Japanese women like light-brown-skinned men, seeing them as more masculine than pale-skinned men. Many women distinguished between "a beautiful man" and "an attractive man." A beautiful man (bi-danshi) is white-skinned and delicately featured like a Kabuki actor. Although he is admired and appreciated almost aesthetically, he is, at the same time, considered somewhat "too feminine" for a woman to depend upon. There is sometimes a reference to the saying, "A beautiful man lacks money and might." On the other hand, an attractive man (ko-danshi) is dusky-skinned, energetic, masculine, and dependable. Women often associate light-brown skin in a man with a dauntless spirit, a capacity for aggressive self-assertion, and a quality of manly sincerity.


In those cases where Malaysian women preferred lighter-skinned Malaysian men, the stated reason was that they looked cleaner or were more likely to produce lighter-skinned children:


Light-skinned men looks clean.


I want a light-skinned man because that will ensure that my child will be light too. If I choose a dark-skinned man, how if my child turned out dark? (Izazi 2021, p. 211)


This interaction between gender and skin color seems to have a profound psychological and even biological basis. Women are universally paler than men, who conversely are ruddier and browner, this sex difference being greatest in medium-colored populations and smallest in very dark and very light populations. (Frost 2007). Wherever the visual arts developed, in regions as far apart as Egypt, Japan, and Meso-America, female figures were given a lighter coloring and male figures a darker one (Capart 1905, 26-27; Eaverly 2013; Soustelle 1970, 130; Tegner 1992; Wagatsuma 1967). Likewise, women's makeup developed in different cultures to produce the same effect of lighter facial color and greater contrast with lip and eye color (Russell 2010).


In pre-Columbian times, this sex difference caused most of the variation in skin color that people usually encountered. It could thus serve as a gender cue. In fact, subjects can reliably tell male and female facial photos apart even when the photos are blurred and differ only in color (Dupuis-Roy et al. 2009; Frost 2011; Russell 2003; Russell and Sinha 2007; Tarr et al. 2001).


This gendered perception of skin color probably influences human behavior in many ways, not only in facilitating gender recognition but also in modifying relations between men and women and between men.


In saying this, I'm not denying the role of the media, particularly the visual media of advertising and entertainment, in shaping perceptions of skin color. I would argue, however, that the visual media have been acting on pre-existing propensities, in most cases amplifying them and in some cases suppressing them. For instance, there was until recent times a tendency to repress eroticization of dark male skin, largely because of its ethnic/racial connotations but also because it projects an image of aggressive hypermasculinity that has been discouraged in pacified societies that limit the use of violence to the State.




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Adriani, N. and A.C. Kruijt. (1950). De Bare'e sprekende Toradjas van Midden-Celebes. Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers.


Capart, J. (1905). Primitive Art in Egypt. London: H. Grevel.


Covarrubias, M. (1950). Island of Bali. New York: Knopf.


Dupuis-Roy, N., I. Fortin, D. Fiset, and F. Gosselin. (2009). Uncovering gender discrimination cues in a realistic setting. Journal of Vision 9 (2), art. 10, 1-8. doi:10.1167/9.2.10


Eaverly, M.A. (2013). Tan Men/Pale Women. Color and Gender in Archaic Greece and Egypt, a Comparative Approach. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. doi:10.3998/mpub.3080238


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Frost, P. (2011). Hue and luminosity of human skin: a visual cue for gender recognition and other mental tasks. Human Ethology Bulletin 26(2): 25-34.  


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Izazi, Z.Z. (2021). Skin colour discourse on the Internet: A content analysis of blog entries by Malaysian bloggers. Southeast Asia Journal 31(2): 191-227.


Krishen, A. S., LaTour, M. S., & Alishah, E. J. (2014). Asian females in an advertising context: Exploring skin tone tension. Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising 35(1): 71-85.


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Russell, R. (2010). Why cosmetics work. In R. Adams, N. Ambady, K. Nakayama, and S. Shimojo (Eds.), The Science of Social Vision (pp. 186-203), Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Russell, R. and P. Sinha. (2007). Real-world face recognition: The importance of surface reflectance properties. Perception 36(9): 1368-74. doi:10.1068/p5779.


Segrave, K. (2005). Suntanning in 20th Century America. Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company.


Soustelle, J. (1970). The Daily Life of the Aztecs. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.


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van den Berghe, P. L. and P. Frost. (1986). Skin color preference, sexual dimorphism, and sexual selection: A case of gene-culture co-evolution? Ethnic and Racial Studies 9(1): 87-113.


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Wilken, G.A. (1893). Handleiding voor de Vergelijkende Volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indie. Leiden: Brill.


Xie, Q., & Zhang, M. (2013). White or tan? A cross-cultural analysis of skin beauty advertisements between China and the United States. Asian Journal of Communication 23(5): 538-554.

1 comment:

jb said...

I notice that Wikipedia actually has an entry for "tall, dark and handsome".