Let’s Talk About Fair Skin: A Malaysian Beauty Standard

As a Malaysian female, there are many cultural norms & values you become accustomed to while growing up. Some of them leave a bad taste in your mouth but quickly you learn to swallow it deep within you, somehow never quite getting used to the taste no matter how much you repeat that step. In our society, we’ve been taught to never question, to just take things at face value, akin to being brainless & thoughtless drones. But thankfully with the emergence of social media (despite the flack it constantly gets), more & more Malaysian women are starting to voice out their discontent and exasperation about these values that have been shoved down our throats, especially when so strongly advocated by our local media companies. We can agree that social media has its adverse effects but it also becomes a platform to spread awareness about these once silent issues faced by women in our country.

Source: Vuhes Magazine

Bleach & whitening cream might thin my skin but words will forever haunt me

1.   “Aiyo, why your skin so dark already???”

Growing up in a Chinese household, I was discouraged to pursue any form of outdoor activity. The main reasoning was how my skin would grow tanner thus becoming “less attractive”. Even writing that sentence down shows how absurd that thinking is much less saying it to an adolescent who shouldn’t have to worry about such menial things. This is the reality of being a Malaysian female where having fair skin is the personification of beauty. It doesn’t matter if you own an amazing personality, if your skin even dares to have a bit of melanin then sorry, it’s over for you, might as well just give up and go live in a cave, hopefully, the lack of sunlight will help. 

For most of my teenage years, I lived with the pressure of maintaining this beauty standard and if for some reason it grew a tone darker than usual, I would have to bear the brunt of how I was never going to attract a mate and was definitely gonna live as an unhappy spinster (another very unhealthy value to instil in girls as if finding a partner is the be all end all for us. Pfft). Eventually the constant nagging got to me and I gave up on my sport of choice: tennis and maybe I was never going to be the next Serena Williams (and one is still clearly bitter about that fantasy being denied) but again it perpetuates the message that girls shouldn’t bother doing activities that could lessen their exterior appearance.

2.   “Wah, see that girl, she’s so fair, so pretty!”

Sometimes the discrimination of darker skin tones is less transparent, it seeps in our daily conversations with our friends, their seemingly innocuous observations of others or the general status quo. Truthfully, these are the most dangerous ways a harmful notion takes place in our society because it occurs in such an indirect way, before we can even stop it, it’s already ingrained in our minds. I’m sure back in school there was always a girl the boys (and the closeted lesbians, here at Teh Talk, we’re inclusive okay!) went crazy over and I’m not surprised if you told me that girl was: 1. Tall 2. Skinny and the most obvious one, 3. Fair-skinned and instead of saying all high school boys are dumb and superficial (maybe just a little bit…), can you really blame them when it’s just been taught by generations before us that those traits are the standards of beauty? And when we see those girls are the ones being idealized, even if we try hard to remind ourselves that beauty is subjective, somehow we’re still gonna vie for that validation of beauty too, no matter what it takes. 

Talking to friends of Malay or Indian descent about their experience growing up, girls of the same race as them who had fairer skin got better treatment from other people, including authority figures like teachers, again instilling the notion that fair-skinned individuals were seen as more trustworthy. Again, IF somehow you managed to escape all that & lived in a utopian place where this Malaysian beauty standard is unheard of (please drop us a name of where you grew up if so) just head over to your nearest health & beauty store and count the endless skin whitening (also sometimes said as skin brightening, a way to more discreet, see beauty companies are catching onto us!) products on display, you’d be surprised at the amount.

Beauty standards: Brought to You by Profits

1.       Regulations not needed in the pursuit of beauty

Source: Eco Waste Coalition

So for those seeking a permanent change to their skin usually turn to more dangerous solutions involving unregulated products that promise forever (just like the boy who tells you he’ll love you forever but then goes ahead and twists a knife right into your heart, don’t trust something that seems too good to be true). With no regulation comes a handful of lethal ingredients such as mercury, hydroquinone, tretinoin in these products, as reported by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) of the Ministry of Health. 

Even when banned for mass consumption, a quick search on Shopee produces hundreds of results selling products which titles usually consist of a very alarming keyword pair of “skin” & “bleaching”.  The scariest part is going through the listings, ingredients are rarely provided, making it a dangerous game for consumers to decide whether trying these products out will lead to their desired skin tone or something much worse. Some of the customer reviews reported their skin stinging or breaking out into rashes but “apparently it’s worth it” as their skin drops a tone or two lighter than before.

Source: Malay Mail

2.       Don’t Shoot the Messenger… or Should We?

A scandal that occurred 2 years ago involving Watsons Malaysia that no matter how much our country has become progressive, our harmful outlook on skin tones is still ingrained in many of us. The scandal involved an advertisement put out by the company during Hari Raya that supports the message of darker skin tones being ugly. 

The storyline is simple enough, a prince holds an audition to find a wife and after of failed candidates, a beautiful voice is heard emanating from a woman whose face cannot be seen as it is covered up by a scarf. After asking her to remove the scarf, he is shocked to see her face, which is obviously painted in black (another issue in itself), redeeming her beautiful voice useless as her dark skin clearly destroys any hint of beauty.   This caused an uproar in social media sites with many users deeming the ad “racist”, “insensitive” and “tasteless” and we at Teh Talk completely agree. 

Our societal warped view of beauty can only be changed once big companies stop playing a role in endorsing this kind of harmful message because, after our family and our peers, the media becomes an institution into which we turn to for learning personal values and morals. Most consumers want to believe that these companies have our best interests in the heart but obviously not as an insecure consumer is a consumer who feels more inclined to purchase products in their pursuit of beauty thus bringing in more profits and media companies will propagate these advertisements also bring more revenue for them too.

Source: Pinterest

Lack of education & awareness is the main reason why the majority of Malaysians continue to hold on to this toxic mentality and the current Korean beauty craze (which also puts fair skin on a pedestal) happening in our country doesn’t help at all. Obviously the current generation of young Malaysians is much more aware of the hate on our natural skin tones that have been perpetuated by the media and the generation before us. 

Unfortunately again, we cannot blame the naivety faced by most consumers as the system has taught us to never question anything thus allowing companies to capitalize fully on our insecurities, a rather cunning and dehumanizing tactic that only benefits the company. We at Teh Talk can sadly agree most of us have grown up with the inadequate feeling of never being enough and always wanting to be another person, whether that constitutes fairer skin, a skinnier body or anything that is basically NOT what we already own. But change is inevitable and we believe in time as more Malaysians become aware of this prevalent issue in our country, females will adopt more loving, realistic & healthier Malaysian beauty standard for ourselves for ourselves forcing companies to put out less self-hating messages to consumers encouraging a self-fulfilled cycle of self-love in our society for once and for all.  

Katricia Lum
Katricia Lum
Will write for iced blacks and Panadols. Also if I'm not hunched over my laptop trying to meet deadlines, I'm most definitely sleeping.

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