For most Vietnamese women, white skin is synonymous with feminine beauty, sophistication and high social status, and many of them cover themselves completely even in the middle of summer in order to protect their fair complexion from the sun’s rays.
In Vietnam, as in the majority of South East Asian countries, dark skin has always been associated with poverty and peasants working in paddy fields exposed to the mercy of the elements. So while in the Western world tanned skin is seen as healthy and beautiful, in countries like Vietnam, Japan or Indonesia, it is so frowned upon that it can sometimes be enough to drive away potential suitors in arranged marriages among middle-class families.
Skin-whitening cosmetic products are very popular in Vietnam, as Italian photographer Monia Lippi notes in her photo series White Skin, which explores the country’s obsession with fair beauty. During her trip to Ho Chi Minh City, she claims she seriously struggled to find cosmetics that didn’t contain whitening agents or didn’t feature the “whitening” on the label. The same is true for other Asian countries, where whitening creams, injections and even soaps for women’s intimate areas are very popular.
But what really makes Vietnam stand out from the rest of Asia, and the aspect Lippi focused in her photo series, is the women’s obsession with covering up completely, even on hot summer days, to protect their white skin against the sun. Things Asian reports that the trend became popular during the mid 1990’s when rising household incomes enabled middle-class Vietnamese women to spend more time and money on their appearance. More recently, a growing number of government warnings about skin cancer only inspired women to cover up even more.
Photo: Overdue Adventure
Nowadays, colorful arm-length gloves, hoodies, full-face gangster-style masks, sunglasses and helmets are very common among young female scooter riders in Ho Chi Minh. Some of them even wear multiple layers of clothing on hot days to make sure the sun rays never touch their white skin, even if it means bathing in a pool of sweat.
Photo: Monia Lippi
According to a young Vietnamese student interviewed by UQ in Vietnam, the skin white trend and cover-up style promoted in the country is also influencing men’s perception of female beauty. “Boys have a better first impression in girls who have lighter skin. Women with lighter skin look more elegant and beautiful, at least in people’s perception. Some think darker skinned persons look somewhat not clean,” he said.
Photo: Monia Lippi
Talking about her photo project, Monia Lippi says that the cult of white is so strong in Vietnam that when she told people about how popular things like foundation, tanning creams and UV solariums are in most developed Western cities, they didn’t believe her.
Photo: Purplegirl & Beerman
Vietnam’s obsession with white skin is often referred to as a mirror image of America’s sun-worshipers who, instead of roasting themselves in the sun, avoid it at all costs.