Hong Kong's public transit is plastered with cosmetics ads promoting a beauty ideal influenced by Western women. Skin-bleaching creams are top sellers in cosmetics shops and media ads promote such things as laser treatments to melt the fat away.
Each day, millions of people ride on Hong Kong's rapid transit lines, a captive audience for the advertisers who pack stations and train cars with flat-screens and multimedia billboards with their ad campaigns. More often than not, the advertisements aired here feature women with long blonde hair, light skin and a sculpted hourglass figure.
Although the idea of women as commodities is nothing new, the outrage expressed by groups such as the Women's Media Center in the United States is nowhere to be found in Hong Kong, where the sculpting and paling of the model comes as no surprise.
In Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, most clothing stores – ranging from high-end retailers like Prada and Burberry to the mid-range Zara – use the same non-Asian models they feature in campaigns in Europe and North America.
Pale skin is a widespread cosmetic ideal in Hong Kong. But while many women follow sun-deflecting trends like carrying parasols, others try more drastic measures. Skin bleaching is common, according to Synovate, a global market research company with offices in Hong Kong. In 2004 the firm conducted a survey of 2,500 women in Hong Kong, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan and found 38 per cent used skin-whitening chemicals.
The treatments – creams and soaps – fill the shelves of Hong Kong cosmetic stores. In Taiwan, whitening products accounted for as much as 35 per cent of cosmetic store sales, according to a 2004 International Market Research Report conducted by Industry Canada.
"In Hong Kong, whitening is very popular, if not the most popular skin treatment," says Royce Yuen, former chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong. "Every big brand offers a whitening and moisturising line."
Many whitening creams contain hydroquinone, a pigment-altering agent that has been linked to cancer. A 2000 study in the British journal Carcinogenesis found a link between hydroquinone exposure and genetic damage, specifically aneusomy, a condition linked to breast cancer. And a July 2008 Canadian government report noted that the chemical could also potentially cause liver or kidney damage.
Products using the chemical are banned in England and deemed risky - although not prohibited - by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, which has little regulatory authority over cosmetics. The European Commission considers hydroquinone a substance that causes concern because of its possible carcinogenic effects but says more investigation is required.
Despite the warnings, Hong Kong women aren't likely to change habits soon, believes Virginia P'an, a business analyst and the former chair and CEO of China Pacific Partners, based in Westport, Connecticut, USA.
P'an, who has worked in the Pacific region, including Hong Kong, for 30 years, says little of the advertising toward women has changed in that time. "A good part of Asia is still an agrarian society. Being whiter-skinned shows you aren't a labourer or a farm worker," she says. "These are cultural trends that are not going to shift overnight. It's only new if you haven't been in Asia before." P'an adds that the ideal should be understood in a cultural context: It's "basically harmless" except for its effect on women's pocketbooks.
But some academics refuse to write off the demand for whiteness as a mere cultural preference. In a 2003 paper, professors Pat Goon and Allison Craven of Monash University in Malaysia chalked up skin whitening to the creation of a "hybrid creature, a dream-doll with Asian features and Caucasian skin."
Another popular obsession is becoming 'model' thin. Of course, the call for thinness is often taken to extremes. Advertisements for slimming centers, laser treatments to "melt" fat from the body, diet pills, diarrhoea inducers and girdles appear on the subway, in newspapers and magazines, on television, and in billboards across the city.
At the same time that economic liberalisation led to the deregulation of media images, rates of eating disorders among women increased, according to a 2002 study from the Chinese University in Hong Kong.
Authorities have tried to regulate dangerous slimming techniques and products. In August 2008, the Hong Kong government issued a warning about ARMA-Sin Gang San, an over-the-counter weight-loss supplement that caused "hallucinations and confusion" in an Indonesian woman. Following the incident, the Hong Kong Department of Health confiscated boxes of the substance and arrested three people involved with its distribution.
But despite such incidents, slimming is still a major pastime for Hong Kong women. Kat Yeh, 20, a Hong Kong native who attends school in the United Kingdom, says she believes the desire to be thin and light-skinned is rooted in a "typical Asian perfectionism."
Yeh, who wears size 6 clothing, says family members frequently tell her she should lose weight.
"Chinese people more than white people I think have an image that slim is perfect. That is pretty common, and if someone says you've gotten fatter you don't take it offensively, like if someone said that to you in the States," she says. For Yeh, and for many of her peers, being deemed too fat or too dark is an accepted part of social and family life.
Yeh says she noticed that after growing up in Hong Kong. "Even slim people go on diets because the whole city's image basically revolves around being thin, and also being white."
Another Hong Kong native, Alisha Haridasani, 19, says she finds the extreme appearances that result from over-slimming disturbing. "You go to the beach and it's actually scary. Some of the women are so, so thin."
By arrangement with Women's eNews/WFS
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