Behind the Bleach: Vietnamese Women’s Obsession with White Skin

Blogs - Vietnam: July 20, 2018

Rochelle Nguyen, a 25-year-old Vietnamese-Canadian woman who teaches at a prominent English centre in Ho Chi Minh City, explained how she went to get a health check in order to obtain a work permit.

“They take a urine sample. They check your eyes. They check your teeth. They check your skin.” (Rochelle accompanied the word skin with air quotes.)

She related this story over a bowl of bo kho in a tiny eatery located in one of the off-the-beaten track hems of Phu Nhuan District. Rochelle explains how she was doubtful about the proposed skin test, but decided to subject herself to it anyway because she needed to in order to work.

“All they looked at were my hands, back and forth, and then [the doctor] was like, ‘Hm. Your skin is really dark. You must like the sun…You’d look better if you were lighter. Lighter girls are prettier.’ It wasn’t even like, ‘Stay out of the sun; it’s bad for your skin’ or anything like that!”

Rochelle was floored by both the non-medical nature of the doctor’s advice, and the boldness with which he dismissed her skin tone as unattractive.

The question arises: why are so many Vietnamese women obsessed with having white skin?

Ho Chi Minh City’s ‘Street Ninjas’ Avoid the Sun

On a walk around Ho Chi Minh City, you can see the care in preserving skin whiteness in the fashion of the women driving around on scooters and motorbikes. Women are covered almost entirely from head to toe in combinations of helmets, scarves, sunglasses, facemasks, long sleeves, gloves, long pants, and socks (even if they’re wearing open sandals).

This ‘street ninja’ motif, as it has been dubbed by some, has become a staple style in Ho Chi Minh City’s fashion culture, while serving the purpose of shielding women from sun rays.

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Photographer Mona Lippi explores the culture of skin covering amongst Vietnamese women in her series of photos entitled “White Skin”. While many might see this penchant for covering as something that strips the wearer of individuality, Lippi marvels at the distinctiveness of each subject.

Lippi said, “I was very interested in the original, colourful, modern individuality of each driver. Vietnamese love to keep their white skin and even in the humid tropical heat, they wear many layers to keep out the sun.”

Many Vietnamese women would rather sweat while wearing layers of clothing than expose their skin to the browning effects of the sun’s rays.

Whitening Agents in Vietnam’s Skin Care

You can also see reflections of the obsession with skin whiteness while perusing the skin care aisle of a local Co-Op mart. For example, finding lotion that isn’t advertised as having some kind of skin-bleaching properties is nearly impossible.

Video source: CNN

My, a 25-year-old local Vietnamese woman from the centre of Vietnam, gave her thoughts about the ubiquity of skin-whitening products. “Vietnamese people prefer to have white skin. In their minds, white skin stands for being rich and beautiful so they want to buy a skincare product that helps them to have white skin.”

It becomes clear that there are assumptions about class attached to skin color, a sociological fact that is not particular to Vietnam, but is ubiquitous throughout Asia.

Mimi, a 24-year-old woman of Vietnamese descent who was raised in Europe, wrote via Facebook messenger that “In terms of historical classism, and the way it was explained to me very early on by my own parents, it was only royalty and wealthy people who could afford to sit indoors and avoid the sunlight. The working class had to be out and about in the fields, on the streets, hence the exposure to the sun and darker skin.”

Nguyen Oanh in an interview with Asia Life Magazine supported this assertion by saying, “For Vietnamese women, being white means that you are beautiful, that you are a person who has money and doesn’t work too hard. Darker skin means you have to work hard and you don’t have time to make yourself more beautiful.”

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Tu, a 30-year-old local woman from Hanoi adds that there’s also an east Asian influence at play. When asked about skin-whitening products, she notes that they have been “...endorsed by celebrities, advertised on national TV for decades. Influenced greatly by Japanese and Korean culture since early 2000s, where women there have naturally lighter skin.”

On another note, Tu points out that the penchant towards white skin can also be attributed to the lack of options provided by makeup manufacturers.

Vietnamese women with darker skin “... have no makeup products that match their skin tone just yet. That’s why having lighter skin allows them to have more natural looking made-up faces. It’s quite a homogenous society, so there’s a delusion that one could obtain exceptional white skin by paying a lot of money for products. The truth is that some people’s skin will just remain the same tone, unless [they use] invasive intervention.”

When asked her own opinion about why women in Asia seem to be obsessed with having lighter skin, she adds, “They associate lighter skin with a better lifestyle. Probably from years of being colonised.”

What’s Colonialism Got to Do With It?

What does colonisation have to do with it? My Tho is a city of about 220,000 with only a handful of western expats living there. Even though there are a dearth of westerners taking residence in My Tho, a good percentage of the advertising aimed at the local population features caucasian faces. One could wonder who the target audience for this marketing is, considering the fact that nearly the entire population of My Tho are local Vietnamese folks.

Are the beauty standards being promoted the result of the ‘opening’ of Vietnam to the absorption of western ideals via globalisation? Are they an echo of Vietnam’s colonial past and its relationship with Europe via the French?

Vietnam has a history of incorporating the ideas, fashion, cuisine, architecture and religion of former colonisers into its own culture. As a historical practice, Vietnam has traditionally expelled its subjugators while keeping some positive aspects of their cultures. (“Thanks for the Buddhism and the noodles, China, but you have to go now.” “Thanks for the banh mi, the infrastructure, and the modifications on the ao dai, France, but we’re done here.”)

It is likely that at least some ideas about whiteness and its proximity to wealth and power were handed down from Vietnam’s former status as a French colony.

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Fewer Incidents of Skin Cancer in Asia?

Vietnamese women’s avoidance of the sun does have a practical benefit. During the sun-drenched months of the dry season, the sun’s rays are powerful and dangerous. People in western countries who have the inverse obsession as the Vietnamese and enjoy tanning, pay a high price for their sun-worship. Although this is at least partially due to genetics and lack of melanin in caucasians, white westerners have the highest incidents of skin cancer in the world.

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Vietnam ranks on the list of incidents of skin cancer by country, 165th out of 183, according to the World Life Expectancy website. It even ranks lower than Iceland, Finland, and Norway, countries that experience dark winters lasting for months.

The preference for white skin amongst Vietnamese women is influenced by a score of factors. Even men get caught in the undertow of perpetuating beauty standards that hold white skin as being preferable. Recent studies have shown that Asian men are investing in skin bleaching products, possibly influenced by imported media from East Asia.

Perhaps in time, Vietnam will become so influenced by its western counterparts that one day tanning beds will be a staple of Vietnamese spas. In the meantime, we can be sure that the ‘street ninjas’, covered from head to toe on the eternal quest for the milkiest of skin, will remain iconic features in the tapestry of Vietnam.

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