The North Star Project, Summer Report Number Six, Tianjin, China By Erin Monroe Tianjin, China Update 3: Whitening


The North Star Project, Summer Report Number Six, Tianjin, China By Erin Monroe Tianjin, China Update 3: Whitening

I’d never seen anyone use an umbrella when it wasn’t raining outside–until I came to China. I didn’t think there was any other use for umbrellas, but I’ve since learned otherwise. Many Chinese women hold lacy umbrellas to block the sun as they stroll down the sidewalk. The idea is to protect their skin from too much exposure to the sun. While I too understand the importance of wearing sun block to protect your skin, there is a different motive for blocking the sun in China. Here, lighter skin indicates that the person does have the status of person who works outside. White skin is perceived as sophisticated and beautiful and this notion is apparent everywhere.

Last week I went to the grocery store to buy some lotion. Walking down the hygiene aisle, I only saw products labeled as “whitening body soap” and “whitening lotion.” In the U.S. the only whitening products in the store are for teeth. I wanted to find regular generic lotion, so I went to another store which had a similar selection. At the third store, a small convenience store, I finally found a little bottle with the English description “body lotion”.

The signs are everywhere. Literally and figuratively–besides the tacit belief that lighter is more beautiful, advertisements on billboards and on TV enforce this perception. Makeup, clothing, and hair models especially are either light-skinned Chinese people or Caucasian people. In America, we often see commercials and movies and advertisements with a mixture of races. For example, on the cover of a American university brochure, there may be three smiling students of all different races. I used to think this seemed so forced, and while the intentions are good, I didn’t think they were always an accurate description of the school. However, I now appreciate the willingness to show different races with different colored skin, sharing the cover of a magazine or the surface of a billboard. It shows onlookers that people of all races can. . . fill in the blank. People of all races can go to that university, wear that makeup brand, wear those designer clothes, use that shampoo, and look beautiful.


I often question the reasons behind the idea that lighter is better. Is it because Western culture, like American media and products, are spreading to Asia at a rapid pace? For example, in movies, do the Caucasian women typically represent the romantic interest and are the Asian woman underrepresented in film altogether? If these ideas hold some truth, then why isn’t American culture as heavily influenced by Chinese culture, appearances, media? Do the two countries not have a reciprocal relationship in this aspect?

I’ve never thought of light-skin as more beautiful than any other. Regardless of the class and socioeconomic statuses commonly associated with being Caucasian, I didn’t dwell on the fact that anyone would want to emulate another ethnicity. My identity, whether I want it to be or not, is engrained in what I look like. Looks are how people perceive you when they first meet you and I believe most people care about appearance more than they admit. For this reason, I can’t say “Why would they lighten their skin? Beauty is such a superficial thing!” For so many, admittedly I include myself in this category, beauty is not something a transient desire, like wishing the rain would stop, or hoping that traffic gets better. Appearance is part of our identities, and people tacitly accept this and constantly try to change their looks (clothes, hair, weight, and now skin color) to fit their own perception of beauty–however they may define it. Still, it stings to see someone so unsatisfied with their appearance that they would alter something as huge as the color of their skin.

I’m getting used to this idea with every umbrella I see and every stare I get walking down the street. Still, I don’t accept it. I don’t believe that lighter skin is more beautiful, and a twinge of sadness washes over me when someone is unsatisfied with the way they naturally look. I do not know how to change the perception that lighter skin is more beautiful and with that realization, my heart becomes a little heavier.
For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see
For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also welcome Duluth East High School, Dodge Middle School and other schools around the world to the North Star Project. The North Star Project has flourished since 2012. For a brief summary, please see recent articles in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. We have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star Project students and teachers.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA

(c) 2013-present The Middle Ground Journal. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under Professor Hong-Ming Liang

10 responses to “The North Star Project, Summer Report Number Six, Tianjin, China By Erin Monroe Tianjin, China Update 3: Whitening

  1. Zhiyu Yang

    I am glad the author observed the special usage of the umbrella in China, which I treat it as a common thing. There is an ancient Chinese saying goes: a white complexion is powerful enough to hide seven faults. So having pale and flawless skin is considered as beauty in China, and that is why most of the body products are made to whiten skin. The reason why most models in advertisements are Asians or Caucasians is that other racial groups are not common to live in China. China is not as racially diverse as America. Also I think lighter skin has the same status in beauty standard as slim body feature. People who are obese may be discriminated by the society. Many teen girls who do not have perfect body features are being teased in their school. The way we accept slim physical features is the way we should accept pale and flawless skin. Those beauty standards may change in the future. But so far we could just wish the future standards are based on nature.

  2. Tayler

    This is a very interesting thing to me. It seems that in the U.S. darker is becoming more and more popular. Fake tanning lotions and tanning bed ads fill women’s magazines. I wonder when this idea of dark being more desirable began when, historically, pale has been seen as a sign of higher class and beauty.

  3. Johanna Jurgens

    Much like in any other country the media plays a huge role on our lives. It tells us how to live, dress, and etc. It is our job to break through that and be able to be happy with who we are. But I think that is extremely interesting, it’s interesting how different and similar we are to people all around the world.

  4. The utilization of umbrellas on a sunny day is nothing new to me. I appreciate the questions you have addressed about aesthetics and perception. I never realize that this concept of umbrellas could be seen as “different.” I forgot that the notion of skin color is not as outdated as I thought it was in terms of beauty. I remember learning that one’s skin determined a glimmer into one’s social class. I hope one day, beauty is not set by a standard of genetics.

  5. Samantha Frascone

    I found this article to be very interesting. I have never heard of any place that views having whiter skin rather than darker as more attractive and more valuable. People in our country spend so much money each year on tanning lotions, tanning beds, etc. It’s surprising to me that in China it is the complete opposite, and people put money towards looking whiter, rather than looking darker. Overall, I think every place has their own unique standard of what beauty is to them, and the people who live their try to measure up to that standard whether it means tanning their skin, avoiding the sun, dressing a certain way, wearing their hair a certain way, etc.

  6. Maria O

    It truly is a shame to see how we are all trained by society to be unhappy with what we look like. As someone already mentioned, there are several ways in which we may be unsatisfied with ourselves: skin color, weight, hair, fitness, the list goes on. I feel like this is in part a ploy to get us to continue buying to ‘fix’ problems that are only perceived as such, but that it also has a lot to do with the long history of colonialism and Anglosaxon “Western” hegemony more recently. Those with the power make the rules, and, when you have one specific group hold so much power for so long and writes epics of its own exploits as the one big narrative, it, sadly, makes sense that we would have that group as the standard of greatness.

  7. I like this article alot. I find it funny how here int he U.S. everyone wants to have dark, tan skin and in certain places lighter skin is valued. It just shows the beauty ideals constructed by society.

  8. Bri Curtis

    I am so fascinated with the idea of how different cultures place value upon things! I have learned several times about how race is a socially constructed idea, but this correlates so strong with our ideals of beauty and power, and intelligence! I think it would be quite refreshing living in another country for awhile.

  9. Brandon Torres

    This problem is also not something isolated to China. In a conversation with someone from Southeast Asia who’d been brought up in another culture much like the one you’ve mentioned, they wondered why I, as a half-Hispanic person would be proud of my dark summer tan. The experience was a first for me, but opened my eyes to how others’ perceptions of me was totally relative to their own background despite however I saw myself.

  10. Katy Goerke

    The myth of Western beauty is that beauty products are only supposed to reflect the beauty on the inside, but despite our diverse array of skin tones I don’t think we are anyless indoctrinated in our beauty ways than China, it is just that ours look different. The example about interracial advertising, is meant to be inclusive, it is meant to say ‘every can conform to THIS standard’

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