25th May 2024 – (Hong Kong) Across the beaches of East Asia, a curious sight greets the eye. Amidst the golden sands and azure waters, there is a notable absence of sun-kissed skin. Instead, many beachgoers, especially women, go to great lengths to shield themselves from the sun’s rays. They huddle under umbrellas, shroud themselves in long sleeves and hats, and slather on copious amounts of sunscreen, all in a determined bid to keep their skin as pale as possible. This deep-rooted obsession with fair skin has become a defining characteristic of East Asian beauty standards. But in the relentless pursuit of porcelain complexions, these women are not only adhering to a problematic ideal rooted in classism and colonialism, they are also depriving themselves of the simple joys and health benefits of soaking up some sun.

The preference for pale skin in countries like China, Hong Kong Japan, and South Korea is a centuries-old bias. Long before exposure to Western influence, East Asian cultures equated fair skin with prestige, wealth, and nobility. Only the privileged could afford to stay indoors, shielded from the sun’s darkening effects, while peasants toiling in fields developed tanned complexions that became associated with poverty and lower status. These deeply ingrained beliefs have been carried into the modern era and reinforced by the region’s thriving beauty industry. Skin-whitening products line store shelves, billboards feature light-skinned models, and celebrity idols openly endorse the pale aesthetic.

However, the quest for whiteness comes at a cost. In their bid to achieve flawless, radiant skin untouched by the sun’s “damaging” rays, East Asian women are not only perpetuating a form of prejudice against darker skin tones, they are also missing out on one of life’s simplest pleasures – basking in the warmth of a beautiful sunny day at the beach.

There is something intrinsically liberating and mood-boosting about feeling the sun on your skin. Moderate exposure to sunlight triggers the release of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals in our brains that lift our spirits. Sunlight also enables our bodies to produce vitamin D, an essential nutrient for strong bones, healthy immune systems, and overall well-being. By constantly shielding themselves from the sun, East Asian women are not only denying themselves these physical and emotional benefits, they may even be putting their health at risk. Vitamin D deficiency is a growing concern in the region.

Moreover, the incessant fixation on achieving milky white skin promotes an unhealthy relationship with our natural skin color. It breeds insecurity and self-loathing, as women feel immense pressure to live up to an unrealistic and homogeneous standard of beauty. The skin-lightening industry, projected to reach a staggering $31.2 billion by 2024, capitalises on and exacerbates these anxieties. Many whitening products contain harmful ingredients like hydroquinone and mercury that can lead to skin damage, irritation, and even more serious health issues. The social and psychological toll is equally concerning, with those who fail to achieve the pale ideal often facing discrimination and diminished self-worth.

This is not to say that sun protection is unimportant. Excessive sun exposure can indeed lead to skin damage, premature aging, and increased skin cancer risk. Sunscreen should certainly be part of a balanced skincare routine. But there is a marked difference between sensible sun protection and an all-consuming obsession with maintaining ghostly pale skin at all costs.

It’s time for East Asia to reexamine its relationship with the sun and complexion. The region’s beauty standards should expand to embrace a diverse spectrum of skin tones. Women should be encouraged to love and accept the skin they were born with, whether it’s naturally fair, olive, or dark. Beauty comes in many shades.

This shift in mindset could open up a world of possibilities. Imagine the joy of East Asian women feeling confident enough to bare their skin on a tropical beach holiday, to splash in the waves and feel the sand between their toes without worrying about their skin tone. Picture the health benefits of getting an adequate dose of vitamin D, the natural mood booster of basking in the sun’s glow. Envision the self-assurance of a generation no longer shackled to an oppressive and rigid beauty standard.

Some positive change is already underway. In recent years, a number of Asian celebrities and influencers have started championing a more natural, suntanned look. There is a budding movement celebrating diverse skin tones and questioning the dominance of the pale aesthetic. But much more needs to be done to dismantle the deep-seated bias against darker skin and the harmful behaviors it inspires.

East Asian society should start by promoting healthier attitudes towards the sun in media and advertising. Beauty brands have a responsibility to expand their shade ranges and showcase a more representative variety of models. Schools can play a role by teaching children to love and appreciate their natural skin from a young age. Governments should crack down on dangerous whitening products and launch public awareness campaigns about the importance of moderate sun exposure for physical and mental health.