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  • Writer's pictureChinon Norteman

What the Fall of Luxury Means for Colorism

Wealth is inextricably linked to luxury objects, which are easier to dupe than ever before. But what does that mean for how women convey status?

 


The camera pans across a row of cherry blossom trees to a woman framed by draping branches. Over one arm, she holds a Chanel bag — its black, archetypical ridges zig-zagging out of frame. Her other arm is bare, pale, and extended outwards as she executes a slight twirl. Most comments call her beautiful; some call her rich. Others simply call her white. The video is one of thousands, reflecting a media landscape in Asia already saturated with its understanding of status. 


The bag is obvious. Designer brands have long prevailed as old guards of class, with Chanel being one of many champions. Still, recent years have hollowed their power. Public awareness of quiet luxury has grown. Knock-offs have increased in both quality and production. Ironically, modern forces of capitalism emerge best situated to redefine their limits. While labels remain popular, their function as a symbol has trodden away from a true embodiment of wealth and into the realm of visual placeholding. Brands still carry recognition — but in an era where a Chanel bag might as well be fake, what exactly is being recognized? 


Society has always, to a certain extent, relied on visual hierarchy for social stratification. As indicators of wealth grow increasingly opaque, a vacuum develops — and in Asia, skin tone is poised to fill it. Colorism is old. It has a long history in Asia, with roots in both colonial influences and independently cultivated classist beliefs. In countries like India, China, Japan, and the Philippines, paler skin has long been documented as a way to signal wealth and class. Colonialist preferences for whiteness (and proximity to it) only amplified its importance. 


Surprising today, however, is colorism’s continued command. As of 2021, skin-lightening products represented over $9.88 billion USD in the global beauty market. Names like Olay, L’Oreal, and Nivea each cater to a cross-regional demand, with the Asia-Pacific market leading in profits. Even as body positivity movements gain traction (“Escape the Corset” in South Korea, for example), virtually all projections indicate increased value within this decade. Popular trends like Chunyu makeup use foundation two shades lighter. Products like “Koji-san soap” and “Snow White Cream” generate ecosystems of tutorial videos and third-party retailers. 


While colorism intersects with racism, it predominantly exists not as a desire to be a white person, but rather a “high-class Asian”. Whiteness is seen as a way to operate within one’s own race with more power. 


These days, most producers, consumers, and designers know colorism is bad. A surge to rename whitening products even reflected this fleeting knowledge. But this changed little about consumers’ demand. In 2022, Bridgerton’s Charithra Chandra shared her struggle to shake compulsions towards whiteness: “When the sun is shining and I tan, my instinct is like, ‘Oh f*ck, I tanned.’ I’m trying to unlearn it.”


History has folded colorism into the agglomeration of women’s judgment, and modernity has laid the foundation to elevate it as an independent criterion. In China, colorism’s standing is perhaps most aptly captured with the phrase “白富美” which translates to “white, rich, beautiful” — used to describe the three ideal qualities of a woman. 



In the past, beauty and wealth have worked in tandem. For those who can afford it, opportunities to pursue beauty are infinitely accessible — just as beauty provides an unbounded canvas to project wealth. In this way, beauty is both a conduit for wealth and a goal in and of itself. Colorism demands a woman’s body represent both beauty and wealth, and it’s this intersection that makes it dangerous. The result is a symbol of wealth that isn’t just bought and worn to indicate social standing (like a Birkin, or even a fake Birkin), or a beauty standard aspired to independent of the class it invokes (like weight). Colorism places the burden of demonstrating status directly on women’s bodies.


Beauty has always been performative. Yet within this performance, women have created opportunities for individuality, creativity, and camaraderie. Colorism is representative of regressive ideas around what purpose beauty serves — or can serve. There is only one isolating, linear goal: be whiter. Be as white as possible.


Understanding why people continue to buy skin-lightening products is deceptively easy. Advertisements reinforce colorist perspectives. Consumers believe paler skin will translate to better job opportunities, romantic prospects, and daily treatment. Protecting and striving for whiteness is often inherited through maternal lines. 


In a 2019 article for Vogue, Audrey Noble writes: “Your skin shouldn’t be a barrier, but you know how things are. Family will always want to do everything to even out the playing field for you.” The quote is of her mother, in response to Noble receiving whitening soap from an aunt. 


As with other beauty standards, media has explored the experiences and contributions of participating women. Why would anyone assume the risk of lightening products’ side effects? What are they doing now to get paler?  But interrogating motivations has limits — most vitally because research has proven these women right. Paler skin can affect job opportunities, romantic prospects, and daily treatment. For women — especially socioeconomically disadvantaged ones — forced to operate within this paradigm, capitalizing on any opportunity to improve social standing makes sense. 


As an “ism” with global reach, colorism affects men and women. Yet it remains women who absorb most of its shockwaves, largely because women are expected to balance the compliance and subversion of beauty standards. Comply, but not to the extent of complacency; blind attempts to become paler are part of the problem. Of course, it’s easiest to comply effortlessly. Be born fair! The accidental personification of status is the original intention, after all. 



But the duality of compliance and subversion is a myth. Accepting or rejecting colorism as an individual in Asia is largely futile, because it exists not just as a beauty standard to refute on a personal level, but rather as an extension of the dominant lens that sees whiteness as inherently linked to a woman’s status — her literal, predetermined worth — of which beauty and wealth are just one part. 


The question of why women pursue whiteness, then, becomes less important than the society that nurtures its realization. A closer marriage between beauty and status should concern everyone. Asia may reflect a more homogenous view of femininity, but its interpretations of womanhood still reverberate outward. If the legitimacy of brands continues to decline, more places will be left vulnerable to a new proxy for status. It matters that women are judged for darker skin tones in Asia. And it matters for the rest of the world, too, which sees colorism manifest in different forms — rooted in parallel casualties of classism, nationalism, and racism. 


Beauty standards shift to accommodate cultural and economic changes, but the reality is, women remain beholden to them. Colorism represents an opportunity: to judge women more efficiently than ever — beauty, wealth, and standing encapsulated in one — or to accept the uncertainty of modern status and begin disentangling it from beauty. 


Underneath it all, there is a woman. 🌀


 

Chinon Norteman is a writer, researcher, and strawberry shortcake enthusiast based in Hong Kong. Her interests include security, femininity, feminism, and their intersection. More thoughts are available on X.

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