Skin Cells

Tasian |tā zh ən| adj. an individual of Asian descent. With a tan.

In order to avoid the grinding halt I’ve come to in my final paper for my Commercial Practice in China subject, I come to address an equally pressing issue that a lot of you have been asking about (it’s probably one of my most received Tumblr questions): Skin Practice in China.

Or all of Asia for that matter.

Because every time I go home to visit my extended family in rural China, the first exchange that has always taken place since I hit age thirteen is my Aunt taking both of my hands and looking into my face (yes my face, not my eyes) and saying gravely, “You’re very dark, Margaret”. All of the cousins murmur, and over the next week of my stay, skin ‘whitening’ products mysteriously appear on my dresser and bathroom sink.


Meanwhile in Seoul, I’d been instructed by friends that I absolutely had to stock up on BB cream – Korea has the best. I walked into a beauty store that had been recommended by one of the designers I’d interviewed the day before, asked about their product selection, and all four salesgirls looked at me like I was cracked to my eyeballs. “You’re ten shades to dark for our darkest BB cream,” said Porcelain Girl 1. Porcelain Girl 2 giggled and batted her false lashes. Porcelain Girl 3 offered condolence in the fact that I would actually pass as Korean if I weren’t so tan. Porcelain Girl 4 began rattling off a skin regime that would lighten my skin five shades in two weeks. It was a miracle product, she said. Worked on her mother, her grandmother, her great-aunt’s sister-in-law, and the girl who served soft-serve cones in the sun down the road.

All Porcelain heads nodded in agreement.

I’ll have you know that I wear SPF 30+ every day, I said, before sheepishly buying a lip tint (the best lip tint), and walking down the road to buy a soft-serve cone from the girl in the sun.

Her skin was pretty white.

So, it doesn’t take rocket science to gather that Asian girls stay out of the sun at all costs, likely contributory to their flawless skin until they’re at least 70, after which they suddenly deflate into a little old lady with adorable jowls and laugh lines – I look forward to that day. For my dear Aunts in China (and the entire 1.3 billion strong population), it’s about class. In Imperial China, a man with a tan was not sexy – he spent eight hours a day knee-deep in rice paddies and his cone hat didn’t do enough to block out the sun. Indeed, my fellow Tasians and I here in Australia joke about our ‘peasantry’ on a regular basis.

The broader issue, though, goes beyond one’s skin tone and even social hierarchy, which was probably more of a concern in the 80s (though one would argue that Asia is currently exploding its way through an 80s equivalent). Perhaps it’s because I’m Australian – a label that celebrates natural beauty: bed hair, dewy skin, and toned bodies. Whether that’s credited to ‘daily Pilates’ or ‘organic smoothies’ or a ‘vegan diet’ (all of which I can be found guilty), there is no shortage of self-love promotion. Our most celebrated celebrities are the ones without makeup (or the ones who, after three hours in a makeup chair, look like they’re wearing no makeup). Every Australian magazine has its annual body issue, celebrating women of all shapes and sizes. Love the skin you’re in. Everybody is beautiful.

So, I do love the damn skin I’m in.

And everybody is damn beautiful.

And then I land in Asia where, in my opinion, women are, naturally, some of the most flawless and mesmerisingly beautiful in the world.

And yet every commercial cosmetic brand has a bleaching cream just for the Asian market. It’s somewhat unusual for a girl in her twenties to have completely untouched, ‘virgin’ black hair. Coloured circle contact lenses, false lashes, and white eyeliner make your eyes look more Caucasian (or more like Manga/Anime, where protagonist babes are generally blonde with blue eyes). Plastic surgery rates are, proportionately, some of the highest in the world. Hell, I’ve seen instances where bloggers have been sponsored to get nose jobs and double eyelid surgery.

It’s a complete rejection of what you’re born with. And that confuses me. Not culturally – don’t get me wrong. It’s a phenomenon. Someone could write a PhD thesis on it. Style Network could build a multimillion dollar reality series around it. Chris Brown could write an inappropriate and slightly racist song about it. Sofia Coppola could make an alternative glamorous suburbia film about it.

Sofia Coppola should make an alternative glamorous suburbia film about it.

But I believe in being happy.

The strive for cosmetic perfection is bloody depressing.

Ladies and gentlemen: I’m a Tasian and proud of it.*

So to hell with your BB Cream.**

I don’t really wear makeup anyway.***

* Alex shot this photo on the rooftop of our apartment in Granada, after having spent a week in Corsica and two weeks in the South of France. I was likely the darkest I’ve ever been, even while packing on the sunscreen. Please wear sunscreen – skin cancer is no fun.

**BB Cream is actually awesome – if you’re tanned, buy Westernised versions of the product e.g. Garnier, Revlon, Philosophy, Covergirl, and L’Oreal (most of them are SPF 30+, too)

*** But when I do, I also bake muffins and/or dance with Maestro Kavanagh

Bec & Bridge Cropped Top – Urban Ears Headphones – Planet Blue Cuff – Proenza Schouler Skirt (dress version on sale right now!)

  • Reader 1

    Interesting post. I have heard of the mass ideal of beauty in china isfair skin due to the rich being under the shade all the time etc. Being a pale chinese girl, I do not wear sunscreen or foundation but am not deathly afraid of the sun either (I do get tanned easily). I am not a very sporty person and have a job that is indoors, so i am typically fair. I feel that because genetically many asian girls do not tan easily, play sports or have an indoor job = do not get dark = wants coverage/foundation = BB cream(less harmful then typical foundation). Even tansians I know do make effort to maintain that tan if they fade easily. I know of fair friends teased by tan friends for being too pale. I think both sides do have their preferences and no country will ever be a true advocate of ‘natural beauty’. A non-choice is still a choice.

  • Aseah

    Hi Margaret,

    I’m kind of late on reading this post but I just wanted to let you know that this was super interesting and, being asian myself, much relatable. I just wanted to ask you what store did you go to?? I’m just really curious because my friend went to Korea recently and this same exact thing happened to her so we were both wondering if it was the same store. Thanks a lot!


Margaret Zhang 章凝 is an Australian-born-Chinese director, photographer, consultant and writer based between New York and Shanghai. Since establishing her website in 2009, Margaret has gone on to work with global brands including CHANEL, UNIQLO, Swarovski, YEEZY, Bulgari, Gucci, MATCHES, Under Armour, and Louis Vuitton in a wide range of capacities both in front of and behind the camera, while completing her Bachelor of Commerce/Bachelor of Laws at The University of Sydney. Margaret’s directing, photography, and styling has been employed by the likes of VOGUE, L’Officiel, Harper’s BAZAAR, NYLON, Marie Claire, GRAZIA and ELLE internationally. She has been listed in Forbes Asia’s 30Under30 and TimeOut’s 40Under40, and her work has been recognized as shaping the international fashion industry by the Business of Fashion BoF500 Index for the past four consecutive years. She went on to be the first Asian face to cover ELLE Australia. In 2016, she co-founded BACKGROUND, a global consultancy for which she specialises in Western-to-Chinese and Chinese-to-Western cultural bridging for a range of luxury, lifestyle, and brand initiatives. In 2017, she exhibited a series of 39 unseen photographic works as a solo show in Sydney, and premiered her first short film – a 15-minute exploration of her visceral relationship with classical music on both performance and abstract planes – to critical acclaim.

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