Hi, I'm Megan. I am a writer, a photographer and an international public health professional. After a year-long research project in Indonesia, I'm back in my hometown, Chicago. It's great to see white snow again, but I miss the fresh coconuts that machete-slinging street vendors would chop open and sell to me for a mere 50 cents. Currently looking for ways, other than hibernating in a hat and gloves under my comforter, to stay warm. Please contact me at mmryan1@gmail.com to pitch your ideas. (FYI - I already tried hot potatos in my pockets, an old Irish tradition)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Obsession with White

When I use the word obsession, I often use it to describe a positive state of mind, one where I constantly think about something because it fascinates me. I will say "I'm obsessed with this new song" and listen to it on repeat because it gives me a lift and gets me moving in the morning.

Yet, I misuse the word. The true definition of obsession "a persistent, disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling" connotes something more negative. Obsession is more than fascination. It is a compulsion to do or think about something because of some sort of delusion that you must, and the definition implies that it might get in the way of "living life".

So we are human - we get obsessed with things, often irrationally, because we have emotions - so what? The real question is: why do we get obsessed with things that are insignificant and that are counterproductive to society? In my opinion, personal obsessions often stem from social norms that delude us to think that certain lifestyles and ways of being are ideal. Media and mass marketing are often the culprits, encouraging people to achieve an image without thinking about whether it is actually achievable or right for them.

What I want to talk about here is an obsession that I've noticed ever since I set foot in Indonesia: the idea that the whiter your skin, the better you are. I first had this thought while perusing the aisles at Circle K (a 7 eleven-type store) for sunscreen and only found one option for sunscreen within a sea of skin whitening products. I was overwhelmed by these products; faces as white and smooth as sandalwood stared back at me from boxes that said "white beauty".

In Jogjakarta (the city where I live) there is even a salon called the "Michael Jackson Skin Whitening Center". Need I say more?

As a very pale American, Indonesians often compliment me because I am so white and therefore beautiful in this culture. My initial reactions were usually to feel surprised and then flattered. "Wow, someone thinks I'm beautiful!" In the US, I was used to being made fun of for being so white. In the summers, I envied my best friend because her skin turned a golden brown and I remained a pasty white or turned lobster red. The first time I went to the beach each summer, I blinded people as I walked along the shore. But now when people comment about how beautiful my white skin is I get frustrated because it says nothing about me as a person. I want to exclaim: What about my thoughts and the work that I do?! It scares me that skin color could be like suits in a deck of cards; white skin is like the trump suit, more powerful than our true values and motivations.

I know, I know: to say that being white in Indonesia is like trumping in a game of spades is exagerating, but there is some truth in that analogy. For example, I attended a hip hop concert in Yogyakarta (a city known for intellectuals and higher education). Three of the performers were of African descent and one was caucasion. At the end the MC, trying to get a rise out of the audience says:
"Hey people out there, which one do you think is the best?! I like the white one!"

The audience squeeled with laughter. Of course, I thought, she would pick the white one, without mention of how they actually performed. I laughed at the explicitlitness of what we would call rasicm in the US. As I imagined how an American audience would react to this comment, I pictured people gasping and angry people storming out of the auditorium. If this happened at a hip hop show in New York, local newpapers, communities and public figures would vociferously critisize the MC, and the organization that she works for. But in Indonesia, people laughed it off. I think it's precisely this attitude - that people simply think white is better - that allows rasicm to thrive in Indonesian society.

Even in Jakarta, an international city, this attitude prevails. I met an African American man from New York who lived in Jakarta for one month. I asked him how he liked Jakarta:
man: "I like it alright, but the city feels opressive to me"

me: "how so? Is it too religious, or are there too many rules?"

man: "Well to be honest, the whole desire to be white freaks me out. I see it everywhere and as a black man, I don't feel accepted. I had a woman tell me I was ugly and dirty because I'm too dark. At the mall accross the street, Ponds is promoting a new skin whitening cream, giving out free samples to the public. The people are loving it."

This obsession with being white is not based on logical reasoning or justification such as, for example, wanting to stay out of the sun to avoid skin cancer (otherwise there would be a larger sunblock selection in stores). The "beauty of whiteness" is ubiquitous in the media, in daily convesations and in my interactions with people. And although I don't have scientific proof that Indonesians believe "white is better", my experience living here is evidence enough for me.

My next question is whether the "idea that whiter is better" is counterproductive in Indonesia? My answer is: absolutely. This idea creates an environment for racism to grow and florish, which if it doesn't cause ethnic conflicts, certainly doesn't help resolve them. Perhaps income gaps in Indonesia persist between people of different skin "shades".

In America, I don't think that we've become a post-racial society like some people claim, but we certainly don't have as many explict messages in the media that tell us we should whiten our skin. In fact, I've never seen a skin whiteing cream in a store in America, and more often there are tanning oils that people use to get darker. Perhaps years of affirmative action and the promotion of diversity in education and the work-force is why there is less of a yearning to be white in America (I'm not denying that racism still exists in America). Looking at the progress America has made in terms of tolerance of diversity, I can't help but be optimistic that Indonesia will eventually develop a "blindness" towards skin color, despite how deeply embedded the idea of "white is better" is.

Here is a blog entry by a friend of mine about her personal experience in Indonesia. It's an example of how conscious Indonesians are of skin color : Don't Judge a Bule by her Color.

Does anyone have examples of this "desire to be white" in Indonesia? What about in America? Is America a post-racial society where people are "blind to skin color", or is that an overstatement? Please share your thoughts!


  1. I'm afraid this obsession is not just in Indonesia nor is it ephemeral. It's quite widespread not only in Asia but also in Africa (they even have health-hazardous and harsher BLEACHING products!). Part of the obsession in South East Asia is to keep up with whatever beauty trends of more developed Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. I was warned once by a Malaysian Chinese uncle that I won't be pretty anymore if I get too much sun. I was just outside for 5 minutes to hang some clothes but I guess I broke the Asian beauty 101 rule of not using an umbrella or a big hat and thick long sleeve shirt. Being fair (pale) is also associated with being as sophisticated and advanced as the fairer Western people.
    However, I wouldn't say that it is a main cause to ethnic conflicts in Malaysia. In other words, it doesn't matter if you're a fair or a dark Malay person to be given special privileges. Though on the more superficial level, a fair woman will generally get more attention than a dark woman. [They must be adoring you like a goddess! And I'm sure you've gotten lots of marriage proposals. :p ] I guess it is more of a skin tone issue not skin colour. The latter obviously has stronger racial implications in any given society.

  2. I enjoyed your blog which was forwarded by Brittany's Adventures in Yogyakarta. This issue really surprised me when I first moved to Singapore: we walked into 20 foot ads in the subway and on the streets touting the latest whitening serums & creams by the biggest names in beauty. I asked a local about it once and she told me it dates from the sheltered life of the privileged or not wanting to have that 'worked in the fields look'! Alison Jordan

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post, your observations ring very true. One thing that frustrated me a lot in Indonesia was how you would see women scrambling to be with white guys because there was this false perception that they were rich and powerful... but in their home countries, not so, they were just average guys. These assumptions were solely based on skin colour.

    I think the obsession with whiteness is a strange remnant in this post-colonial society (the Dutch held the power for a long time, and they were white) as well as something probably influenced by the injection of Western popular culture into Indonesia (and many other Asian nations) as well, and trends from other countries such as Japan and Korea. There is also the connection with the monied classes not having dark skin because they didn't have to work outside etc etc, so it is to some degree historical.

    But as you said, I think it has big repercussions. Look at Papuans... they are arguably some of the most poorly treated by the Java-centric government in the Indonesian archepelago and their skin is also the darkest... sure, there's a lot of other stuff going on with Papua as well that has generated the situation it is in presently, but I feel that a significant number of Javanese don't have a great deal of empathy for them, and some of that is potentially based on skin tone.

    Just like in Western countries where they monopolize on women's low self esteem with things like weight loss treatments, acne treatments etc etc, I also think that big cosmetic companies have identified this soft point in Indonesian national self esteem and have advertised the absolute crap out of their whitening products in these markets (its impossible to live in Indonesia without seeing at least 10 or 20 ads for whitening products a day, maybe more if you watch a lot of local TV), which has only served to continue on these outmoded assumptions that white skin is 'better'.

    It's a big and complex phenomena and I think its a shame. Maybe people will go through a reclamation process at some stage, like how many women in the US and other western countries are rallying against unrealistic images in beauty magazines etc? It will probably take quite a lot of time though...

  4. Thanks for all your comments :). It's interesting to hear about other people's experiences living in Indonesia. I agree that the desire to be whiter originated during colonial times and because people associate darkness with the working class. I wanted to focus on my personal experiences, so I didn't go into the history of class differences in Indonesia. Plus, that topic is probably over my head...haha.

  5. From an Indonesian, male, and minority’s perspective.

    I think we’re mixing the concepts of “taste” and “treatment” here.

    Personally, I like fair skin women, because I think they’re beautiful.
    I haven’t found a dark skin woman that I consider as beautiful, eventhough many people said so, like Naomi Campbell.
    For men, I don’t care about the skin. As long as the body is well-built, I like to see it.
    (For haven’s sake, when will I get that six pack??? Hahaha…)

    This is my taste, personal preferences, judgements from my visual senses.
    This is not a judgement about people’s thoughts and abilities.

    This doesn’t mean I am racist or discriminate people.
    I treat and perceive people as equals.
    And this is not just about the skin, but also about the religion, ethnic, race, level of education, socioeconomic status, etc.
    I can’t prove this through words. You can get proofs by seeing my action.
    Yes, I live and work in a very diverse environment, making my life more colorful.
    And I’m grateful for it.

    So, how do I response to this sentences?:
    “But now when people comment about how beautiful my white skin is I get frustrated because it says nothing about me as a person. I want to exclaim: What about my thoughts and the work that I do?!”

    by saying:
    “It says that you are beautiful as a person, but it says nothing about your thoughts and the work you do.”

    Forgive me for being honest and making you frustrated….


  6. Thanks for responding to my post Edo.

    In this post I wasn't trying to say that people who are attracted to others with light skin are discriminatory people. You can't force what you are and are not visually attracted to.

    What I am saying is that all of the messages about white skin being more beautiful (and there are plenty of them in Indonesia) have a huge influence on the way people view themselves and others. It's just a shame when I hear people tell me that they wish their skin were lighter.

    When I said:

    "But now when people comment about how beautiful my white skin is I get frustrated because it says nothing about me as a person. I want to exclaim: What about my thoughts and the work that I do?!”

    it was just an example of a moment when I was particularly frustrated. I know that when people say this to me, it's meant to be a complement. It's just the frequency with which I hear this exact complement that bothers me. Because it seems so unimportant to me.