The Vietnamese Burqa

by aengelson | July 27th, 2010

I’ve heard from a few friends on Facebook that there’s a boycott and protest brewing against Vaseline for creating a Facebook app that takes your photo and “lightens” your skin color. The program, which is used to market a skin-whitening cream sold to men in India, is being criticized as racist.

There’s a good article here about the controversy, including a clip of this disturbing TV ad where a guy just can’t get the girls until he uses “Fair and Lovely” to lighten his skin:

There’s obviously a lot going on here–this idea that whiteness is the ideal of beauty and power.

You see this dynamic all the time in Vietnam: ads depicting young, middle class professional Vietnamese as light-skinned. It’s in billboards, TV ads, all sorts of marketing. The roots of this notion equating pale skin with beauty goes back long before the proliferation of Western products in Asia, and even prior to colonialism. If you worked in the fields all day, you tended to be brown. If you lived a life of ease in the shelter of a merchant house or royal palace , and were carried about in rickshaws under parasols, you tended to be light-skinned.

But the way this feeds into the Vietnamese middle class’s desire to be more Western is problematic: it just fuels a system of privileges for white, wealthy Western people throughout the world. I mean, take another example: there’s a new industry in China where white guys are hired to attend meetings as the “token white guy“–to pretend to be businessmen involved in a project in order to give a Chinese business more credibility. That’s another sign of a very strange racial dynamic going on.

Still, the uproar over Vaseline’s product seems misplaced to me. I think many people in North America have become incensed because they’re only now discovering the existence of a billion-dollar industry to change your skin color.

In just about any supermarket in Hanoi, you can find an array of skin whitening products.

And of course the crazy irony is than many of us white Westerners (and I admit I’m one) want to darken our skin. We sit by the pool, some of us go to tanning booths, and some even buy skin darkening creams (which of course we hear no uproar about). It’s a symbol of leisure to be tan, rested and beautiful. To me it looks healthier, but of course with cancer a risk, it’s not. True, the dynamic is much different from skin-lightening, but it’s so strange to me that the grass is always greener–and the skin color so much more appealing–on the other side.

In Vietnam, you see the effects of this desire for fair skin just about every day. The most obvious sign is what I call the Vietnamese burqa. Every day, women hop on to their motorbikes in Hanoi covered from head to toe, with hardly so much as a nose poking out. Many women don lightweight, hooded long-sleeve shirts, the ubiquitous face mask (also said to protect from exhaust fumes, but I’m skeptical) and sometimes a pair of dark sunglasses to cap it off. Sometimes these women resemble Muslim women in full burqa–or the sweathshirt-swathed character Kenny from South Park.

Every day in Hanoi, women on motorbikes bundle up to protect themselves from the sun's rays.

I can hardly fault these women. The sun here can be intense, and skin cancer is an issue–and these coverings are actually an easy, inexpensive way to prevent overexposure to the sun. But I suspect the motive here isn’t health, but beauty. Case in point: you don’t see men doing this at all. Vietnam, like America, is generally a beauty-conscious society, maybe even more so. It seems in general there’s more of an emphasis on dressing up, looking formal, wearing a short skirt and high heels and fancy makeup than back in frumpy Seattle.

So what does it mean, all these women bundling themselves in the hot sun trying to have skin more like Nicole Kidman rather than Halle Berry? Well, if the skin-lightening creams sold by these big companies are actually damaging to your health (and there’s some evidence that some of them may be) then of course it’s an outrage. And despite the fact that people in Asia freely choose to purchase these products or seek whiter skin there’s a troubling dynamic here. The Indian TV ad makes this clear: these companies are fostering this notion, creating a demand. There’s this assumption that to be brown is lower, less desirable. And that is racist.

But it’s the tip of a very big iceberg. How do we begin to promote a culture that accepts and values people for who they are, regardless of race, class or ethnicity? I don’t know. I suspect that boycotting Vaseline isn’t really the answer. It’s a much deeper and pervasive problem, and I admit I don’t really have a clue how to tackle it.

But I’ll probably continue to work on my tan.

7 Responses to “The Vietnamese Burqa”

  1. Some Joe You Don't Know. says:

    I think in Vietnam the concept of whiteness equates to beauty is mostly applicable to women in particular. A man with pale complexion is traditionally looked up on as being effeminate and prone to unmanly activities.

  2. Thanks for the reminder that this fascination we have with skin color goes back way before most of us think it does. And that it goes in more than one direction (dark to light and visa versa). That may begin to explain the universality and transitivity of racism as we know it today. Hmm. As always a very thoughtful write up, Andy! Thanks! And like you, I am definitely still working on my tan.

  3. sticky wicket: do they cover themselves or do they wear mini skirts? I have noticed a few women take off their motorscooter stockings when they get out of their ninja costume and they cover up their kids pretty well, too.

    as for the harmful effects of tanning creams and copper tone and sun booths… well those are all pretty well documented- but, no! these are completely safe.

    finally, native americans, at least in the view of rhymester and writer Sherman Alexie (Spokane), white has always been considered more beautiful. until political awareness takes over.

    out.

  4. many Asian cultures absolutely believe that fair skin is equivalent to beauty. growing up in Manila, i was kept out of the sun as much as possible so i “wouldn’t get dark.”

    it’s the norm to hear someone say something like, “she’s so pretty, her skin is so fair.” a comment on someone’s fair skin is almost always the number one compliment about someone’s looks. you could be pretty average looking, but if your skin is very fair, you would be considered a beauty.

    all the movie stars and models have fair skin and some cosmetic changes to their Malayan noses, so they’ll be narrower and pointier like “American noses.”

    it’s so crazy and i hated it! fortunately once we moved to the U.S. i realized it was all crap :) now i’m still a huge SPF head-to-toe sort of person, but for health reasons. well, okay it’s also so i don’t get wrinkles…

  5. Me and my sister had same fair complexion in childhood, but after teenage I choose to wear burqa but my sister didn’t.

    Now we have same complexion on upper arms, legs and covered parts. But when it comes to face, hand, feet and arms, I’m much fairer then her because I wear full burqa, gloves and shoes and my sister wears half sleeves, no veil and sandals ;) lol

    although it’s very hard to 100% cover yourself in 100 F + with humid climate, but fair skin and safety against skin cancer is worth!

    So I prefer sweating to burning :P

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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