Complexion complex

Updated: 2013-07-23 13:36

By Tiffany Tan (China Daily)

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Complexion complex

A man uses an umbrella to sheid himself from the sun on in Nantong, Jiangsu province on July 19, 2013. Photo by Xu Peiqin for China Daily

Why do Westerners risk skin disease for tans, while Chinese swim with balaclavas, trousers and long-sleeved shirts? It's because of different associations between tone and wealth, Tiffany Tan finds.

A light complexion is powerful enough to hide seven faults.

This belief has long been chief among Chinese aesthetic values when it comes to judging appearances.

It's no wonder then that sunlight would become a glaring threat.

Twenty-four year-old Li Biyu says she wears a whitening facial mask twice a week and slathers on a whitening essence every other day to maintain her naturally light skin tone.

On summer days out, the Beijing graduate student from Hunan province applies sunscreen on her face and shields herself from the sun with an umbrella. Before cycling, she smears sunblock all over her body.

Some women on two wheels go as far as to wear long gloves despite the heat or don a small cape to cover their forearms. Others spend as much as 400 yuan ($65) on umbrellas that promise to block ultraviolet rays, while a growing number are shelling out thousands for laser-whitening medical procedures.

But there's probably nothing more jaw-dropping than the "facekini", a balaclava that covers a person's head and neck, with holes for the eyes, nostrils and mouth. This conspicuous type of headgear has become increasingly prevalent at Chinese beaches this summer.

Washington DC resident Richelle Gamlam, who studied in Beijing and Shaanxi's provincial capital Xi'an for a semester last year, was so intrigued by the Chinese obsession with white skin that she decided to make it the focus of a research project.

"As the weather in China began to get warmer and warmer, I noticed many unusual behaviors in Chinese women," begins her paper, An In-depth Look at the Chinese Quest for Lighter, Brighter and Whiter Skin.

"I saw women with sun umbrellas on the street and sweaters with long pants at the beach. Coming from America, a country with a tanning obsession, this focus on maintaining white skin, even at the cost of comfort and convenience, seemed alien to me."

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