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Who’s afraid of the big, bad sun?

January 18, 2011

A Chinese girl recently told me, if an ugly girl has white skin, she is pretty. This mentality is not limited to China. Here in Vietnam, there is an entire industry dedicated to keeping one’s skin white.

The first way women protect themselves from the sun is by the clothing they wear. I live in a city where the daytime temperatures rarely go below eighty and the humidity is extremely high. Just thinking about jeans makes my shins sweat. I wouldn’t dream of wearing long sleeves and pants, much less socks, hats, and gloves.

Let me describe some of the clothes that have been invented purely for the purpose of sun protection. One that amuses me the most is the long-sleeve, button up shirt with hand flaps. The sleeves have pieces of material that extend to cover the hand while driving the motorbike. And since driving causes wind that could blow the material off the hand, there are finger loops underneath to keep the hands securely covered at all times. These shirts are usually only worn in transit, and upon arrival at their destination the ladies will remove the shirt revealing a cute tank top or some short sleeve shirt.

In case you prefer to wear a regular jacket instead of the hand-flap shirt, there is a wide selection of gloves available to keep your hands white and sweaty hot. Many ladies wear regular gloves, like we wear to keep our hands warm, but you can also purchase skin-colored gloves.



For those ladies who don’t want to wear an extra layer, there are long gloves available that can be worn with short sleeve shirts. They are similar to gloves one might wear to a ball or some other elegant occasion, but come in various skin tones.

Many of the ladies wear masks, similar to surgical masks, but in various fashionable patterns. I have found that these serve both to protect the face from the sun and to keep some of the noxious fumes out. If this type of face coverage isn’t enough, or if you are concerned about your neck being exposed, there are masks that cover the entire head and come down over the neck and chest like a balaclava. Large sunglasses are worn to make sure the sun doesn’t reflect off the ground and tan one’s eyelids.



And since Vietnamese ladies love their sexy heels and sandals, we can’t neglect to cover the feet. That’s why they make skin-colored socks with a space between the first and second toe to fit flip-flops. Yesterday, I saw a lady wearing five-inch heels with a rhinestone bow across the toe – and socks! These socks also come in a wide variety of colors and styles so one can be fashionable while keeping their skin white.



Hats are another very important sun protection item. There is a chain of stores, ironically named Non Son, that sells hats of every size and description. I’ve seen a Non Son store as close as two blocks from the next one – just in case.

If, for some terrible reason, a girl is unprepared for the hundred-yard walk from her office to the lunch stand, she will use a newspaper or something similar to shield her face – or if all else fails, she may even run.

For some ladies, protection from the sun isn’t enough. Or maybe because of their ancestry their skin is darker than they would like. This is where the many types of skin whitening products come in. And, though there are many infomercials advertising miraculous skin whitening creams, one need not go to this extreme. Nearly every body lotion, facial moisturizer, cleanser, body wash, and deodorant is made to whiten your skin. I don’t know if they actually work, but I’m scared to buy them. I don’t want to end up with white cheeks and armpits.

When I first arrived, I puzzled at the lengths these ladies go to keep their skin white. Why does it matter so much? But, it all comes down to class. In a society where the poor who work outdoors doing manual labor and have brown skin, white skin is a sign of wealth and leisure.

“This is absurd,” I think to myself, “why not just enjoy the skin color you were born with?” Then, I realize that Americans are no different. We just want the opposite color – whether it’s sun bathing, going to the tanning bed, using bronzer, self-tanner, or spray tan. For us, being tan, especially in the winter, shows that you have time and money for vacation. You can afford to lounge on the beach or (for all you Lonely Island fans) be on a boat!

In spite of the fact that I understand where the ladies are coming from, I will never cease to be amused by their efforts. Or by the fact that at 5:30pm, when the sun goes down, the sun guards come off and the tiny shorts and dresses come on. Not all the ladies here are this fanatical. My friend, Ann, says it is too much work. But there are enough who care that many vendors’ entire stock of merchandise is dedicated to the light-skin cause.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2011 18:56

    Interesting that it is more about aesthetics rather than any idea about skin cancer, etc. The more different people are the more they are the same? 🙂

    • January 19, 2011 03:40

      You’re right. I think it’s a good reminder not to throw stones. Now that I’ve posted this I’m being alerted to a lot of the chemicals in these products. It’s pretty sad what we do for beauty.

  2. Sarah permalink
    January 18, 2011 23:14

    I have done a lot of research on the chemicals that companies use in their hygiene/personal products. In the United States, people should be able to take the long term safety of their personal care products for granted, but lipstick still contains lead, deodorant and chapstick still contain parabens, and lip gloss and lotions still contain pthalates. One of the most disturbing situations I read about was the Asian fascination of skin whitening. Personally I think that the north American obsession with tanning is equally absurd because scientists have found fecal matter and a plethora of dead skin in tanning beds, and only God and strange corporations know What is in suntan lotion. Skin whitening is actually just as detrimental. As an anthropology major I realize I have to be sensitive to cultural differences, and I understand the fascination because every culture had one regardless of how odd it may seem. HOWEVER – big businesses still bank on these fascinations and don’t really give a damn who they’re hurting in the long term as long as they can make their Buck. The hidden culprit in skin whitening creams? Chromium!

    • January 19, 2011 01:37

      Now I’m going to start inspecting the whitening products – and while I’m at it I should probably inspect the products I’m using on my own body.

      I love the cultural differences, but it is sad when their/our customs are harmful to our bodies. Never knew just how bad all these things really are. Thank you so much for commenting.

  3. January 20, 2011 22:36

    Fascinating! It definitely makes me think about my own beauty routines and the reasons behind them.

  4. Charity permalink
    January 21, 2011 11:59

    You are right! This all sounds very amusing and entertaining, and true Americans are only just the opposite…

  5. February 10, 2011 13:46

    of course melissa likes this 😉

    i couldn’t handle all the extra layers with it being so hot and humid!!! and it’s funny, i WANT my feet and hands to have color — i strive for that!

  6. February 18, 2011 10:25

    Lovely article and yes, skin whitening is big business in an Asian beauty industry and unfortunately some women do resort to those black market whitening creams without realising the dangers they can face later on and for the rest of their lives.

  7. Cortez Julian permalink
    November 18, 2012 21:26

    Skin whitening these days can be done naturally with fewer side effects through the use of topical vitamins like Niacinamide or B3. *

    Most up-to-date write-up on our very own website

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