Asians Dying to Be White

Oct 05, 2010
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Can beauty really be measured by a person’s skin colour?

In some cultures, yes. Many Asian cultures, Hmong included, value light skin over dark skin. This obsession with fair skin has a long history in Asian cultures. It dates back to the time of nobility and aristocracy. Only the rich could afford to stay inside, away from the sun, thus their skin was lighter than the peasants who had to work in the fields. In many Southeast Asian countries, one could tell a person’s socioeconomic status by the colour of their skin. The lighter you are, the richer you must be.

Light skin not only represents your class, but also your beauty. Only maidens of skin as pale as the moon are considered beautiful. And this leads back to nobility and aristocracy. It is believed no peasant can be more beautiful than an aristocrat’s daughter.

In the Hmong culture, being dark means you’re ugly. I was a dark kid. So, dark that my family called me “Cambodian.” Being called “Cambodian” or “Laotian” is an insult to many Hmong people. Why? Because the stereotypical Cambodian or Laotian has dark skin, and being dark means you’re ugly.

203 Hmong ladies under umbrellas and playing a traditional game of ball toss.(Photo: Oliver Spalt)


I believed every word of it. I wasn’t beautiful because of my skin colour. So, when I was old enough to put on make-up, I tried to find the lightest shade of foundation and powder that I could get away with. I would put it on my face, to make my skin appear lighter. However, it only turned my face a pale greyish-blue colour. But that didn’t matter, just as long as my skin wasn’t dark. Right?

This went on for two years. Then I finally accepted myself in high school. I am beautiful the way I am. And once I accepted that my skin colour was beautiful, I started to see that some of the most beautiful people I know have dark skin, such as my friends, Sam and Rosa.

I’m not as dark as I was six or seven years ago because my skin has lightened over the years. Maybe it’s due to not playing outside every day like when I was a kid. Or maybe my skin just “matured”. I don’t really know, but I do know that I’m not scared to go out during the summer time and get a tan. Whenever I hear other Hmong people complain about getting dark because they’ve been out in the sun too long, I just roll my eyes. And every time I hear someone criticise a child for being too dark or say that they don’t want to “turn” ugly, I state my opinion: “It’s not so bad being dark. And it is definitely not ugly.” (It is one thing to be concerned about premature wrinkles and skin cancer from staying out in the sun too long; and entirety different not to stay out so you won’t turn ugly.)

It’s not so bad being dark. And it is definitely not ugly.

This “obsession” with being white is so rampant in Asian countries that skin whitening creams are all over the market. (Skin whitening creams contain dangerously high levels of mercury, the bleaching agent in these creams). This desire to have fair skin is probably as great as the desire to have double eyelids. We all want what we don’t have. White people bake themselves in tanning salons to get golden skin. Asians slather mercury on their faces to get the fair skin that they’re not born with. Asians are dying to be White while the Whites are dying to be dark.

A funny world we live in.


This post was originally published on A Hmong Woman in August 2010.