For many Southern Californians, summer is the season for beaches, chaise longues and the quest for the perfect tan.
Not for Margaret Qiu. She and thousands of other Asian American women are going to great lengths to avoid the sun—fighting to preserve or enhance their pale complexions with expensive creams, masks, gloves, professional face scrubs and medical procedures.
For these women, a porcelain-like white face is the feminine ideal, reflecting a long-held belief that pale skin represents a comfortable life. They also believe it can hide physical imperfections.
“There’s a saying, ‘If you have white skin, you can cover 1,000 uglinesses,’” said Qiu, a 36-year-old Chinese immigrant who lives in Alhambra.
Qiu goes through a regimen of skin-whitening products twice a day. She is one of many customers who have turned Asian whitening creams and lotions into a multimillion-dollar industry in the United States.
But that’s just the beginning.
Take a daylight drive through Asian immigrant enclaves like Monterey Park and Irvine, and you’ll see women trying to shield themselves with umbrellas—even for the short dash from a parking lot into a supermarket. While driving, many wear special “UV gloves”—which look like the long gloves worn with ball gowns—to protect their forearms, and don wraparound visors that resemble welder’s masks.
At beauty salons, women huddle around cosmetics counters asking about the latest cleansers and lotions that claim to control melanin production in skin cells, often dropping more than $100 for a set. Beauticians do a brisk business with $65 whitening therapies. Women dab faces with fruit acid, which is supposed to remove the old skin cells that dull the skin, and glop on masks with pearl powder or other ingredients that they believe lighten the skin.
There are doctors who, for about $1,000, will use an electrical field to deliver vitamins, moisturizers and bleaching agents to a woman’s face in a procedure known as a “mesofacial.”
Whitening products have been a mainstay in Asia for decades, but cosmetics industry officials said they have emerged as a hot seller in the United States only in the last four years. Whitening products now rack up $10 million in sales a year, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.
But their popularity has sparked a debate in the Asian American community about the politics of whitening. Qui and others say the quest for white skin is an Asian tradition. But others—younger, American-born Asians—question whether the obsession with an ivory complexion has more to do with blending into white American culture, or even a subtle prejudice against those with darker skin.
The market research firm says cosmetics companies have taken note of the sensitivity, saying their Asian skin products in America are intended not for “whitening” but for “brightening.”
“It’s not a politically correct term because it seems to imply that looking Caucasian via a white complexion is the desired beauty goal,” said Virginia Lee, a Euromonitor analyst.