For as long as I can remember my parents have complained that my skin is too dark. It was the root of many arguments. They always blamed each other and the constant bickering made me feel that my skin tone was a deformity.
By 14 years old I had grown into a stoop-shouldered young woman who seemed to be trailed everywhere by a shadow of misery. I didn’t have any close friends and boys weren’t interested in me.
To lighten my skin I would slather a thick paste of white powder on my neck and face every morning before school. Sometimes when I ran out of it and didn’t have enough pocket money for more I would mix baby powder with a bit of clam oil — a cheap body oil preserved in a clamshell popular in China in the late 1980s — and make my own face paint. Once I even used a piece of chalk I had stolen from my teacher’s desk when I realized the makeup I had applied in the morning had been melted away by my sweat.
I looked ridiculous — like a geisha. I was deluded but also hopelessly in love with a classmate of mine who had a pale complexion and a fondness for white-collared short sleeve shirts. I would have done anything to make myself whiter if I thought it would get him to notice me. But my infatuation was unrequited, as I found out when he drew a portrait of me splashed in black ink and paraded it around the classroom.
Judging someone’s class based on the color of their skin is actually a Chinese tradition. Darker hues are representative of those who work outside and are exposed to the sun on a daily basis. It’s understandable that in a society obsessed with the pursuit of riches and upper class lifestyles, nobody wants to resemble an underprivileged figure like a dark, ugly peasant. A desire to be light has become imbued in the culture.
At its core, the desire to be white is a form of class discrimination. But what is perhaps even more troubling is the fact that it leads to sexual discrimination.
I tried everything to lighten myself: soaps, lotions, sunscreens, herbs, lemon juice, white peony root, pearl powder, lily root, bird droppings, and even boiled eggs. I did it all in the name of beauty, although I sometimes wondered if this ideal of white skin was just a fetish concocted by Chinese men. A preference for pale-skinned women has a long history in China. The overly romantic ancient Chinese poems — 99 percent of which were written by men — always hold up a pale complexion as a woman’s most beautiful feature.
This is particularly evident in the Classic of Poetry, published around 601 B.C. The princess Zhang Jing, considered to be the most beautiful woman in China during the Spring and Autumn period, was described: “Her skin is so white, being as it is made from the pure lard.” Sima Xiangru, a renowned ancient Chinese poet, depicted Chinese women in a similar fashion: “Her body is a white vase for the dew, her fragile bones are covered by her lard-made skin.”
We bound our feet for over a thousand years to satisfy one of the strangest and most barbaric male sexual fetishes. The Nielsen Corporation, a market research firm, asserted in 2011 that whitening products account for around 30 percent of China’s skincare market — and this market is only growing. It achieves nothing more than hurting women’s self-esteem, and yet few people would question why fair-skinned girls should be so desirable, and why the same standards of beauty don’t apply to men.
Neither my mother nor my father could admit that my dark skin was simply due to natural causes and not because they had bad genes. After years of attempting to become a white girl, I gave up.
I began spending my money on books and traveling instead, and after being a “leftover woman” for years — the term in China for older unmarried women — I finally married an Englishman who adores my color. It didn’t fully cure my low self-esteem, but it certainly helped.
Women come in all shapes and sizes, and in many different colors. I hope that society will continue developing until we finally reach a point where we can firmly say that we have left misogynistic tendencies where they belong: in the past.
(Header image: A woman applies a facial cream in her home in Changsha, Hunan province, March 8, 2014. Li Jun/VCG)