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My Beef with Skin-Lightening

By Adila Shahrin

Last year, Mihaela Noroc’s Atlas of Beauty photo series started making its way around social media sites. The photography project, which featured local model Nadia Rahmat, caused a stir among local netizens. Although the photography project aimed to illustrate that beauty is not skin-deep, some netizens felt that she was not representative of their ideal standard of beauty. Comments such as “so ugly” and “why is Singapore like that” began to surface.   Although it is easy to dismiss the severity of this case by arguing that beauty is subjective and simply differs among people, one needs to understand the implications of such comments.

In September 2016, the hashtag #SingapuraBeauty trended on Twitter. It was a movement sparked by locals who wanted to challenge the narrow perception of beauty standards in Singapore’s society. Users, particularly those of a minority race, shared pictures of themselves and their friends to celebrate their beauty. Racial minorities here are often underrepresented, and hegemonic beauty standards such as having a fair skin tones inevitably marginalises the races that do not conform to this. This preoccupation with fair skin is not something exclusive to Singapore. According to the World Health Organisation, close to 40% of women surveyed in China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and the Republic of Korea used skin-lightening products. In Nigeria, a whopping 77% of women use skin-lightening products regularly while in India, skin lightening products account for 61% of their dermatological market.

When I was younger, mak ciks (aunties) and pak ciks (uncles) would coo over how pretty I was for a Malay girl, simply because I had fair skin. I was told that everyone likes girls with porcelain-like skin, just like the popular Malaysian singer, Siti Nurhaliza. Kalau gelap-gelap, mana lawa? (Translation from Malay: If you’re so dark, how to be pretty?)

When I was 13, I started taking swimming lessons. My exposure to the sun had a noticeable effect on the skin tone. My skin turned a darker shade, and freckles started to dot my cheeks. I was not bothered by the change in my appearance, but it became something others felt the need to constantly point out.

“Wah, you finally look like a Malay!”

“Eeee, why you look so black now?”

Even when other friends grew more tan because they spent lots of time under the sun, they were always teased for being “so black”, it’s “so ugly”. One only needs to walk down the streets of Orchard Road to see how obsessed this society is with skin-lightening products and services. Advertisements promoting these products are plastered everywhere. From bus stops to the inside of shopping malls, you just can’t seem to run away from this reality. Olay, Shiseido, and SK-II are just some of the brands we often hear of. Perhaps then, local netizens were upset over Noroc’s choice of Nadia Rahmat, because their definition of beauty meant someone with fair skin and she certainly did not look the part. When adolescent girls are exposed to these notions, they start internalising this belief that fairer means prettier from a very young age. This could have a harmful impact on their self-esteem and how they feel about their bodies as they grow older.

The prevalence of skin-lightening products and services implicitly tells those who are born with a darker skin tone that there is something wrong with their skin, that there is a need for them to change the way they look to be accepted by society. It is unjust to use one’s skin color as a yardstick to determine how beautiful they are. Beauty is more than just the color of your skin. It is more than something superficial. It is found in the words you speak, the hearts you reach out to, and the shoulders you lend. It is found in the hurdles you overcome and the new challenges you seek. It is found deep within you.

Angélica Dass, a Brazilian photographer, once said in a Ted Talk presentation that “we still live in a world where the color of our skin not only gives a first impression, but a lasting one that remains”. It is only by embracing the whole spectrum of skin colours and recognising that we are all beautiful that we can begin to cull this obsession with skin-lightening products. Only then can we truly say that we celebrate diversity.

About the Author: Adila is currently a Global Studies undergraduate minoring in Gender Studies. When she’s not busy playing with her cat, she loves devouring feminist literature. And mini Oreos.   


Trans folks in the media – Singapore-style


Written by Estelle Ng, Change Maker

4eb57acf36bdbf74d07a9a6ed94cd75aIn December 2015, an article published in The Straits Times caught my attention. Entitled “Transgender man with 2 ‘wives’ admits sex with teenage girl”, it was an extremely uncomfortable and confusing read.

Here’s why:

  1. In short, it was a case about a man who is charged with having sex with a minor.
  2. The word “married” is placed in inverted commas – making it unclear as to whether he really is married. If they are legally married, there should be no reason why “married” should be accompanied by inverted commas. Furthermore, it is unclear if his marital status(es) matter.
  3. He was constantly referred to as “her” even though his gender identity clearly shows otherwise.
  4. It is unclear if his gender identity actually matters in this case. Think about it, would his gender identity and/or orientation be worth a mention if he was cisgender? “Cisgender man with 2 ‘wives’ admits sex with teenage girls”. If not, is there really a need to identify him as a “transgender” while at the same time denying his gender identity?

The choice of words and language used in the recent newspaper report reflects a less-than-dignified representation of individuals from the trans community. And my opinion is even echoed in an unpublished letter written by Sayoni to the Straits Times.

Talking about how the trans community is represented in media is important because it reflects how they are treated in society. More importantly, it also deals with any social biases and prejudices they face in society.

Surely, in this day and age, there has to be more respectful representations of trans individuals in Singapore. Afterall, trans individuals are just like you and me – we go to school, get a job and pay due taxes. The only difference is in the bodies we identify ourselves in: yet, don’t we all have a unique way of identifying our preferred gender and performance as well?

Having said that, how can we best represent individuals from this community? Let’s take a look at three note-worthy media representations!

  1. The New Paper’s Mum, Am I a boy or a girl? Singaporean transgender individuals open up about struggles

Shortly after the above mentioned case was made public, TNP made the effort to engage in conversations with a few trans folks. In the report, trans individuals were given a chance to narrate their life stories. It featured three individuals: Cheong who shared about how she had to live under her mother’s expectations of her as a boy when she was growing up; Khor who spoke about his transition; and Salamat who expressed her joy after becoming who she really felt like. Though featuring three individuals cannot wholly represent experiences that all trans individuals face, the article humanises trans individuals and treats them with respect by giving them room to share their stories the way they want to.

  1. Grace Baey’s photo exhibition, 8 Women

If a picture speaks a thousand words, Baey would have spoken a great amount by bringing them in the limelight in the way the featured 8 individuals were comfortable with. Entitled 8 Women, this photo exhibition highlights how trans folks exist in diversity – each one is unique in their own right.

  1. Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 11.55.02 amChristopher Khor’s upcoming film-documentary, Some Reassembly Required

In an upcoming documentary, Khor features trans folks in different stages of transition. But, really this documentary is about what it means to be human for some individuals in a “modern country with conservative Asian values”.

In sum, various media platforms have an important role to play in providing information and educating the public. It is essential that information is tactfully chosen and media works are thoughtfully crafted and presented. Being insensitive to a person regardless of gender identity or orientation is not only disrespectful but also serves to fuel discrimination that the LGBTQIA community is already facing in Singapore.

It is time to recognise that trans folks are individual human beings who deserve respect too. After all, identifying with a particular life experience or gender identity is only a part of one’s identity.

“I am who I am (which is the sum of my experiences) but being transgender specifically is not the centre of my being… I think it’s become so much a part of me that I would not be who I am without it, but does it define me? I don’t think so.,” he offers. “We really are just the sum of our life experiences, and being transgender is just one part of mine.”

– Christopher Khor in an interview with Contented.

estelleAbout the AuthorLiving by the motto permanent impermanence, Estelle realises that with every moment never capable of repeating itself, life is simply too short to be spent waiting for things to happen. She is currently a Sociology undergraduate who believes that the power of words and the arts can inspire conversations.