Not all white: how K-pop and Asian hip hop made tanned look popular with some subcultures

Many women in East Asia desire pale skin, but a minority have rebelled against this beauty standard, influenced by Chinese rappers, some K-pop stars and mixed-raced influencers – an echo of an older movement in Japan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 10:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2018, 11:11am

In East Asia, pale white skin has been considered a beauty ideal for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Most women in Hong Kong and China grow up hearing ancient sayings like “one whiteness covers three kinds of ugliness” (一白遮百丑 ), which denotes white skin as an important virtue; and “fair, rich and beautiful” (白富美), three traits that define the pinnacle of success.

Neighbouring nations such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and others share similar standards.

Many skincare and beauty products in Asia come with taglines like “Stay White” or “White perfect”. Whitening lines that often don’t exist in the West are launched exclusively in Asia by brands such as Dior, Estee Lauder and Chanel, and whitening-focused skincare labels such as Japan’s SKII and South Korea’s Sulwhasoo.

Pale skin is a beauty goal in many other countries too. The global market for skin lighteners is projected to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024, according to a report released by Global Industry Analysts.

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But a movement is emerging in East Asia in which tanned skin is acceptable, even desirable – thanks, some say, to the rise of K-pop and Asian hip hop. In South Korea, K-pop star Lee Hyori, a member of ’90s girl group Fin. K. L who is regarded as the nation’s pop princess, is often credited with helping popularise tanned skin and making it more acceptable.

Since Hyori, the K-pop scene has seen other idols embracing the tanned look, most notably Hyun-a, a popular member of girl group 4Minute, who also appeared in Psy’s Gangnam Style music video.

Yoon Mi-rae, a member of hip hop group MFBTY, is one of the few celebrities in South Korea with mixed parentage. With an African-American father and Korean mother, she is credited with promoting multiculturalism and for expanding beauty standards in South Korea.

In China, the undeniable influence of K-pop, Korean rap artists, American hip hop and street style has led to the emergence of acts such as the hip hop group Higher Brothers, and performers like PG One and GAI, who are helping shift rap music into the mainstream.

TV shows such as Rap of China, which is loosely based on South Korean hip-hop reality contest Show Me The Money, brought exposure to new looks and new personalities, including Vava, a female rapper who often flaunts a bronzed look, heavy contouring and long braids.

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Tanning is a little-known subculture in China called “pretty black” (美黑), says Chenni Xu, a consultant on gender issues and member of the Beijing Women’s Network.

“People will go to tanning salons, especially those in the fitness field, those who like working out, or who are more accustomed to Western standards of a healthy skin tone,” she said.

Bettina Ding, a consultant at Cherry Blossoms Marketing, a Hong Kong-based research firm that specialises in China lifestyle trends, says: “The latest hip hop interest, thanks to the Chinese hip hop reality TV show, just planted a small seed of acceptance of tanned skin, but I think it will still take some time for it to be a trend.”

While the rise of more diverse beauty standards is a welcome change, sporting a tanned look to emulate African-American culture and hip hop risks being perceived as cultural appropriation. Hip hop artists in Asia will have to be careful not to cross that line as the movement grows.

This isn’t the first time tanned skin has made its appearance as a lifestyle trend. Almost three decades ago in Japan, young women and men began tanning their skin, wearing colourful make-up and bleaching their hair to create the ganguro movement.

J-pop star Ayumi Hamasaki had a major influence on the rise of this style. Though it was mainly a lifestyle, ganguro and its more extreme sister movement yamamba were subcultures that were seen as a form of rebellion against the ideal of having white skin, dark hair and a conservative, put-together appearance.

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While the movement eventually faded out, the appeal of tanned skin endures for a small group in Japan. “One of the most popular models’ faces right now is Rola, who is mixed – her father is from Bangladesh and her mother is Russian-Japanese,” said Chelsea Schieder, an assistant professor at Meiji University and an expert on women’s issues in Japan.

“She’s got a little more colour, but you’ll notice in photos that she also tends toward a more pale look, and her warm skin glow doesn’t seem to be from tanning,” said Schieder.

Stereotypes regarding tanned skin need to be deconstructed and dismantled, says Catherine Killough, an expert on women’s issues at the Ploughshares Fund foundation.

“[Tanned] skin in South Korea also strikes me as being associated with a ‘bad girl’ look – similar to the way tattoos are viewed, which have also grown in popularity,” she said. “But I think there’s still a major divide between how comfortably women can express those trends compared to men. [For instance] tattooed men are cool, tattooed women are promiscuous.

“Having a darker complexion myself, I’ve noticed that [tanned] skin has become more accepted by South Koreans,” said Killough, who is half Korean. “But the ‘acceptable’ tan gradient still seems so light compared to the multitude of darker tones [that exist].”