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Beauty and the Bleach

Some Asian American women spend thousands pursuing the traditional ideal of whiter skin. Others see a dark shadow of prejudice.

July 26, 2005|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

For many Southern Californians, summer is the season for beaches, chaise longues and the quest for the perfect tan.

Not for Margaret Qiu. She and thousands of other Asian American women are going to great lengths to avoid the sun -- fighting to preserve or enhance their pale complexions with expensive creams, masks, gloves, professional face scrubs and medical procedures.

For these women, a porcelain-like white face is the feminine ideal, reflecting a long-held belief that pale skin represents a comfortable life. They also believe it can hide physical imperfections.

"There's a saying, 'If you have white skin, you can cover 1,000 uglinesses,' " said Qiu, a 36-year-old Chinese immigrant who lives in Alhambra.

Qiu goes through a regimen of skin-whitening products twice a day. She is one of many customers who have turned Asian whitening creams and lotions into a multimillion-dollar industry in the United States.

But that's just the beginning.

Take a daylight drive through Asian immigrant enclaves like Monterey Park and Irvine, and you'll see women trying to shield themselves with umbrellas -- even for the short dash from a parking lot into a supermarket. While driving, many wear special "UV gloves" -- which look like the long gloves worn with ball gowns -- to protect their forearms, and don wraparound visors that resemble welder's masks.

At beauty salons, women huddle around cosmetics counters asking about the latest cleansers and lotions that claim to control melanin production in skin cells, often dropping more than $100 for a set. Beauticians do a brisk business with $65 whitening therapies. Women dab faces with fruit acid, which is supposed to remove the old skin cells that dull the skin, and glop on masks with pearl powder or other ingredients that they believe lighten the skin.

There are doctors who, for about $1,000, will use an electrical field to deliver vitamins, moisturizers and bleaching agents to a woman's face in a procedure known as a "mesofacial."

Whitening products have been a mainstay in Asia for decades, but cosmetics industry officials said they have emerged as a hot seller in the United States only in the last four years. Whitening products now rack up $10 million in sales a year, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

But their popularity has sparked a debate in the Asian American community about the politics of whitening. Qui and others say the quest for white skin is an Asian tradition. But others -- younger, American-born Asians -- question whether the obsession with an ivory complexion has more to do with blending into white American culture, or even a subtle prejudice against those with darker skin.

The market research firm says cosmetics companies have taken note of the sensitivity, saying their Asian skin products in America are intended not for "whitening" but for "brightening."

"It's not a politically correct term because it seems to imply that looking Caucasian via a white complexion is the desired beauty goal," said Virginia Lee, a Euromonitor analyst.


Qiu, a 36-year-old native of Xi'an, China, thinks there is nothing politically incorrect about using products that whiten the skin, which are known in Mandarin as mei bai, or "beauty white."

Qiu, who sells herbal supplements, has used whitening creams for five years and went to Vitativ, a cosmetics store in Monterey Park, one recent morning for a refill.

As she paid for a set of Shiseido "UV White" lotions, Qiu said she was surprised when she first arrived in the U.S. and saw so many young women flaunting their tans.

She came to realize that Eastern and Western ideas of beauty were different. Here, she said, "When you see darker, you think they are very rich. They have a boat. They have enough time to go to the beach."

It's OK for American women to be darker, said her husband Lei Sun, a 36-year-old sushi chef. "It's part of the sports thing."

But Lei Sun prefers lighter-skinned Asian women, saying that they embody the traditional ideal known as si si wen wen. He looked to his wife to explain the concept.

"That means when a lady stands there with white skin and is very polite, and when she laughs, she doesn't make a big noise," Qiu said.

Women with pale skin are more delicate, more feminine and show that they don't have to toil outdoors, Qiu explained.

"Whiter skin also means high class," she said.

Every morning and every night, Qiu spends a few minutes applying whitening lotions.

"I never buy the very cheap one," she said one morning as she dabbed her face with whitening moisturizer in the white bathroom of her Alhambra house. "Sometimes with those, your neck and your face are different colors, and people can see that it's not your real color."

Some of the cheaper products can be dangerous, she said.

In 2002, newspapers reported that women in Hong Kong were hospitalized for mercury poisoning caused by three brands of whitening cream.

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