Many Asian Americans invest thousands in maintaining a light complexion.
LOS ANGELES -- For many southern Californians, summer is the season for beaches, chaise lounges 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 and 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.
Common practice
Take a daylight drive through Asian immigrant enclaves such as 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 welders' 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.
Politics of whitening
But their popularity has sparked a debate in the Asian American community about the politics of whitening. Qiu and others say the quest for white skin is an Asian tradition. But others -- mostly 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.
Qiu, a 36-year-old native of Xi'an, China, says there is nothing politically incorrect about using products that whiten the skin, which are known in Mandarin as mei bai, or "beauty white."
Qiu, who sells herbal supplements, has used whitening creams for five years and went to Vitativ, a cosmetics store in Monterey Park, one recent morning for a refill.
As she paid for a set of Shiseido "UV White" lotions, Qiu said she was surprised when she first arrived in the United States and saw so many young women flaunting their tans.
Ideals of beauty
She came to realize Eastern and Western ideas of beauty were different. Here, she said, "When you see darker, you think they are very rich. They have a boat. They have enough time to go to the beach."
It's OK for American women to be darker, said her husband, Lei Sun, a 36-year-old sushi chef. "It's part of the sports thing."
But Lei Sun prefers lighter-skinned Asian women, saying that they embody the traditional ideal known as si si wen wen. He looked to his wife to explain the concept.
"That means when a lady stands there with white skin and is very polite, and when she laughs, she doesn't make a big noise," Qiu said.
Women with pale skin are more delicate, more feminine and show that they don't have to toil outdoors, Qiu explained.
"Whiter skin also means high class," she said.
Pursuing perfection
Every morning and every night, Qiu spends a few minutes applying whitening lotions.
"I never buy the very cheap one," she said one morning as she dabbed her face with whitening moisturizer in the bathroom of her Alhambra house. "Sometimes with those, your neck and your face are different colors, and people can see that it's not your real color."
Some of the cheaper products can be dangerous, she said.
In 2002, newspapers reported that women in Hong Kong were hospitalized for mercury poisoning caused by three brands of whitening cream.
In California, officials at the state's Department of Health Services and Department of Consumer Affairs said they had received no complaints nor issued any warnings about whitening cosmetics or treatments.
The products sold in the United States and Asia include ingredients such as licorice extract or green tea, which purportedly control the skin's production of melanin.
For Qiu and others, it's important to find just the right shade of white. Most of these products don't claim to turn a woman's skin to the color of white bond paper, but something just a shade paler and more delicate -- say, the inside of a woman's upper arm.
Any whiter, Qiu said, and you look sickly.
"Then they look like Michael Jackson," she said. "He looks terrible."
Paying the price
For Theresa Lin-Cheng, 50, avoiding the sun and applying creams at night wasn't enough. Lin-Cheng, who hosts a cooking show on Chinese-language radio and cable television, moved to Chino Hills nine years ago from Taiwan and quickly noticed that the southern California sun was making her skin darker and drier.
Her friends told her about Dr. George Sun of Arcadia, who offers a procedure called a "fotofacial RF," which uses intense pulses of light and radio frequency to interfere with melanin production in the skin.
When Sun -- who chuckles about the irony of his last name but says it means "descendant" in Chinese -- introduced the mesofacial about eight months ago, Lin-Cheng started getting that treatment, too. She says she spends a few hundred dollars a month on skin procedures at Sun's office.
Lin-Cheng, whose skin now resembles a pink-white peony, said she gets compliments from her friends on her appearance.
"I know I cannot get there, but, always, Nicole Kidman is my idol," she said.
Lin-Cheng reapplies baby sun block every hour and takes the tinted visor that she calls her "welder's helmet" everywhere. She purchased the helmet on a recent trip to Taiwan and brought extras for "friends who want to be beautiful." She outfitted her daughter Jessica with one of the helmets, and the 22-year old wore it daily on her walk from her apartment in Westwood to the UCLA campus.
Sun, a plastic surgeon, started treating women for "pigmentation issues" in 1996 after clients asked him how they could lighten their skin and get rid of sun spots and dark patches. Sun said he now treats about 30 women a week.
"It's like botox," he said. "Do you think people in the past were interested in wrinkle improvement? Yes. Could they do something about it, though? ... [Women's] concerns and their wish for improvement can finally be met in the hands of specialists."