Cultural Definition of Beauty: Golden Tan or Pale Skin?

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Pearl Doan

While glowing, golden tan skin is the common beauty benchmark in America, in Asia, many individuals endeavor to achieve pale, milky white skin. While these cultural definitions of beauty seem like polar opposites, the effect that these standards have on the common population are both detrimental; many Americans increase their risk of skin cancer through excessive trips to the tanning booth,[1] and many Asians apply chemically toxic whitening creams to their skin. Because of this, researchers desired to explore the perceptions of beauty in Asians in both America and in Asia in their study.[2]

For their study, the researchers questioned patients in a dermatology clinic and administered an online survey that questioned respondents’ attitudes about their skin, especially focusing on the different answers of Asians who were raised in Asia and Asians who were raised in the United States. Through the hundreds of respondents, the researchers found that respondents who lived in America and were later generations of immigrants generally perceived a tan as ideal.[2] Furthermore, this same group believed that applying sunscreen was too excessive, and 60% of this group reported laying out in the sun to achieve a tan. In contrast, older generations and respondents who were less Westernized generally perceived light skin as ideal. They also found that these individuals on averagely used skin lighteners more and consciously avoided the sun.

Though American and Asian cultural definitions of beauty directly contradict one another, the researchers’ findings suggest that these perceptions of beauty depend on the upbringing of an individual. From younger Asian-Americans heading to the tanning salon to older Asians avoiding sun exposure, the long-lasting consequences of these beauty standards ultimately arise from the individual’s environment. Therefore, before seeking ultraviolet rays for golden tan skin or purchasing the ingredients for a whitening home remedy, consider that the skin beauty standards possibly pressuring you to do so are far from universal.

While Americans celebrate the golden tan, Asians revere milky white skin. The cultural definitions of beauty in these contexts dramatically contradict each other, but researchers desired to know if individuals’ standard of beauty changed based on their location and age, administering surveys to hundreds of individuals throughout the world. Focusing on Asians living in Asia and Asian-Americans, the researchers found that younger Asian-Americans primarily wanted the standard tan, having higher rates of sunbathing and lower incidences of sunscreen usage than their less Westernized predecessors. Less Westernized, older Asians, on the other hand, desired pale skin; therefore reporting less sun exposure and greater rates of skin lightener usage. The study’s findings suggest that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, as the respondent’s location and age correlated to the respondent’s ideal bodily image. So before visiting the tanning salon or avoiding the sun entirely, ask: Is your definition of beauty a product of your environment?

 For further reading on sun protection and tanning practices, click on the article links below: 

A Healthy Way to Get a Base Tan

The Science of Spray Tans

The Broad Effects of Sunlight and Sun Exposure: Benefits and Dangers

What you Should Know About Sunscreens, Clothing, and Tanning

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References

  1.  Madigan LM, Lim HW. Tanning beds: Impact on health, and recent regulations. Clin Dermatol.2016;34(5):640-648; PMID: 27638445 Link to research.
  2. Gorell E, Lee C, Munoz C, et al. Adoption of Western culture by Californian Asian Americans: attitudes and practices promoting sun exposure. Arch Dermatol.2009;145(5):552-556; PMID: 19451499 Link to research.