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What does it mean to become “truly White”?  How can we begin conceive of it?  In a pyschosocial sense, I suppose one would have to consume, interpret and then perform selected aspects of  cultural “whiteness”.   But let’s put cultural understandings of “whiteness” aside for a second in order to look at the matter of becoming physically white.

In keeping with many of my experiences in China, this question confronted me completely by surprise. On a trip to the grocery store, I was looking for some lotion.  When I stumbled upon an aisle full of small, lotion-like bottles, I figured I had found what I was looking for.  What I found, though, was not lotion. It was skin whitening cream.  In fact, the aisle was filled with these lil lotion imposters. It was overwhelming . . . daunting . . . exhausting.

In several discussions about beauty with students, I’ve been told that mass mediated notions of beauty tend to revolve around features like big eyes, a thin physique and very white skin.  No one I spoke with claimed to be a user of these products, but their popularity is evident by the sheer volume of whitening creams that engulf the beauty aisles of some local stores.  I snapped a couple of pictures of some familiar brands – Garnier’s “True White” (as opposed to fake white???)  and Nivea’s “Silk White”.

In one of our music theme lessons, we ask students the question “What can music reflect about a society?”   Similarly, my trip to the grocery store begs the question “What do our beauty aisles reflect about our society?” Certainly, tastes and orientations toward standards of beauty vary in any society, including Chinese society.   Not everyone is a fan of skin whitening.  I am interested in learning more about who consumes these products in Chinese society and for what reasons (or perceived reasons)?

On the other hand, these dominant criteria play an important role in evaluating physical beauty, and even drawing boundaries around who is allowed to be considered Chinese.  The story of the young Shanghainese girl, Luo Jing (娄婧), comes to mind.  Luo Jing’s father was an African-American who was involved in an extramarital affair with her mother, a native Shanghainese woman.  Luo Jing speaks fluent Mandarin, and soared in a local singing competition.  The controversy surrounding her legitimacy as a Chinese girl grew in proportion to her success on the show.  I think her story is an important one because it disrupts common notions of Chinese beauty.  Put another way, the uproar surrounding Luo Jing’s claim to fame, glory and a Chinese identity highlights the staunch conflation of lighter skin and “true” Chinese beauty. An acknowledgment of this forces local and global societies to reflect on the value we give to skin color and why.  How can one be “truly white” or “truly Chinese”?

I’m including some of Luo Jing’s beautiful pictures in this post as well as a link to an English-language website that pulls selected news and comments from Chinese-language sites.  Please take this with a grain of salt as it represents  a narrow yet potent subset of views –  Luo Jing.

Oh, and in the end, I decided that I’d rather not buy any lotion.

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