Southeast Asia hasn’t quite caught up with the body positivity wave experienced in other cultures, according to panelists in a discussion on beauty biases. Even in multiracial societies, said Malaysian fashion model Nalisa Alia Amin, slim, fair skin, and straight hair is still the standard. 

“[Malaysia is] a multiracial country. Why is there only one skin tone?” she asked the audience of the March 8 event by Hong Kong-based news channel South China Morning Post (SCMP). Ms. Amin is the first plus-size model to open Kuala Lumpur’s Fashion Week in 2018. 

“I think we have to do our own protest and [voice out that] we no longer support this kind of beauty standard,” she added.

The skin whitening industry targets women of color. Its most lucrative markets are in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, where growth is expected to reach $11.8 billion by 2026, per a January 2022 CNN report.

In Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, a lighter complexion is associated with wealth, power, and authority. Even babies have not been spared criticism for their morena (brown) skin.

This notion is a result of the country’s Spanish colonialism, which demarcated Filipino society’s upper echelons from everyone else, according to sociologist Ricardo G. Abad in a previous BusinessWorld article.

“It also happened, however, that those with power and authority were largely white-skinned…,” Mr. Abad said. “Since that social stratification lasted for centuries without much challenge, it was fairly easy to ingrain in people’s mind that skin color (and maybe texture as well) is associated with success, or being on top of the social heap.” 

People also tie beauty to thinness in Asian culture, said Stephanie Teng, a Hong Kong-based artist and photographer, in the March 8 event. She related how, growing up, relatives she seldom saw would comment on her weight.

“At a young age, it wasn’t a choice to separate ourselves and see beauty that isn’t tied to the idea of thinness. Skinny means you’ll have a more successful life, a better life,” she said.

The many stories that have been emerging of late, however, reflect the welcome development that women are now empowered to speak up on the challenges they face, according to Michelline Espiritu Suarez. 

“Growing up, we didn’t have that,” the Filipina author and Philippine Star columnist noted at the November 2021 book launch of an all-female anthology. 

“We were just taught to be patient with our elders who would make comments about our appearance,” said Ms. Suarez, who added she is raising her two daughters to find their identity outside of their physical appearance.

Beauty biases can be broken if a more dynamic definition of beauty is embraced, said Stephanie Ng, founder and executive director of Body Banter, a non-profit that works with young people come to terms with their body image and mental health.  

“We can see beauty as something that is an experience rather than an achievement,” Ms. Ng said at the SCMP discussion. — Patricia Mirasol