Esther van der Lugt s147420
Dream of White- the Asian trend of skin whitening and its effects on body and mind


I have chosen for two Isa Knox’ “Dream of White” whitening products advertisements to be linked to the phenomenon of body modification. When I was in Korea I noticed the enormous popularity of skin care shops and one of the sales women tried to sell me whitening crème under the motto “one can never be white enough”[1]. In this essay I will use this advertisement to examine how the Asian 18 billion dollar market for whitening products has an impact on the bodies and minds of the consumers of these products.

These advertisements of Isa Knox features one of the most expensive whitening products on the Korean market[2], and are promoted by Jessica Alba and Hiyori Lee[3], two very popular and successful women. Having a white skin therefore can be associated with success, happiness and beauty. As popular Asian saying states: “One white can cover up three ugliness”[4] or the commercial slogan “Flawlessly milky skin is to die for” reveals that Asians apparently do not like their own color of skin. Furthermore, by using a Western actress, it can be argued that the white Western ideal of beauty is forced upon Asians. Jessica Alba isn’t entirely white, but this may well be the trick- perhaps she is successful because she approaches being white so closely, or one can identify with her as she also wants to be white but isn’t either. There are counterarguments for the statement that skin whiteners are a result of the domination of the Western beauty ideal. Firstly, the whitening trend may refer to the Chinese Han feminine beauty ideal[5] which featured a moon-white complexion. At the same time it is a means of signaling social stratification as large proportion of Asians are agrarians, who have a darker complexion, making it desirable to be white. As Leeyong Soo, fashion editor of the Vogue Nippon states, wanting to be white is part of the dominant Asian consumer culture[6]. As the advertisement business mostly uses pale white models, the idea is spread that the Asian natural skin color is not desirable. One of these two advertisements clearly hints towards improvement, especially by using the words “Dream of White”, since who would not like to live a dream and have a beautiful white skin? The undesirable effect of this trend is that women are reported to develop feelings of inferiority for not having a white skin[7] and go to great lengths to achieve this ideal. A result is the booming market of dangerous bleaching products, products that can cause skin damage or even skin cancer[8].

But are skin whitener buying Asians therefore cultural dopes, brainwashed by the cosmetics and advertisement business? As Dorothy Smith could argue, these advertisements can only work because of female agency and women’s specialized knowledge of fashion and skin treatment methods. “Being” beautiful/having a pale complexion may give women feelings of empowerment, enjoyment and satisfaction. This explanation provides an alternative to the dualistic conception of female embodiment, where there is no account of how women mentally deal with the current and desired state of their body. Nevertheless, as a woman wants to whiten her skin because her boss likes a white complexion more , is this really a free choice or not? As can be argued, portraying women solely as agents or cultural dopes does not do justice to the complexity of reality[9]. All in all, even though I personally find this whitening ones complexion through crèmes a matter of self-denial, is this trend in essence really that different/more self denying than the uniform Western “thin” beauty ideal?




[1] Which I kindly declined.

[2] A small quantity of is sold for $110.

[3] I analysed both of these advertisements because they are complimentary. For the second ad, with Jessica Alba, see: http://kpop.puttles.com/What_has_Lee_Hyori_modelled_for-100418.html, see the ad in the middle of the page.

[4] http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/east/05/13/asia.whitening/

[5] Han dynasty: 206 B.C.- A.D.220

[6] http://www.asianpacificpost.com/portal2/ff8080810b1faf95010b2498f44a01b7_Asian_white_skin.do.html

[7] http://www.asianpacificpost.com/portal2/ff8080810b1faf95010b2498f44a01b7_Asian_white_skin.do.html

[8] http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/china-and-its-neighbors/091123/asia-white-skin-treatments-risks

[9] Lecture prof. Alkeline van Lenning