Consider this the next time you’re lying out next to the pool trying to get some color into your pasty skin: On the other side of the world women are wearing head-to-toe swimsuits that include full face masks with only slits cut out for eyes, mouth and nose. And they’re doing it because they don’t want their skin to tan.
In China, light skin is the beauty ideal and the lighter the better. They even have a saying that translates roughly to “white skin covers up a hundred uglinesses.” Women all over China go to great lengths in the summer to keep from getting the slightest tan which can mean everything from carrying a parasol at all times (which honestly sounds adorably fun) to wearing sun protective clothing from wrist to ankle at all times (which honestly sounds miserable).
Now Qingdaonese women have upped the ante by adding full face masks — think bank robber but with a neon pink flair — called a “face-kini” and apparently it’s all the rage on Chinese beaches. And I thought I stood out at the pool in my long-sleeved UPF100 rashguard.
But the masks aren’t just to keep from tanning. According to Peng Yangjun, the photographer who snapped these beautiful pics, Chinese women wear them for a variety of reasons. He points out the masks protect against jellyfish and pollution in the water. In addition, he says that elderly Chinese women are shy to show their bodies and the masks give them anonymity.
And then there is the creation of the masks themselves. “Elderly women make the masks by hand. They use materials like used underwears, used clothes and used swimsuits, to piece and sew them together, so you hardly find two same masks, every piece is a unique one, with different textures, and colors, like a contemporary art piece,” Yangjun says, adding that the women take great pride in creating styles that reflect their taste and personality.
Perhaps I should look into a mask? Thanks to a genetic predisposition to skin cancer (both my parents have had it) and a shade of skin I lovingly describe as “fish belly,” I can definitely relate to the desire to keep all exposed skin away from sunlight. Although I do it more out of health concerns than vanity.
I once tried to imitate my sun-kissed sisters by getting a spray tan in college. The result was hilariously disastrous, closer to a kid caught playing with her mom’s bronzer than anything approximating real life. After that I gave up on fake tanners and became an avid sunscreen devotee. While I don’t judge the women at all for wanting to protect their skin, it does seem like it might be uncomfortable to wear something closer to a space suit than a swimsuit at the beach. But perhaps they’re more comfy than they look?
In many places in the world (like in China), lighter skin is considered more beautiful. India, the Philippines and many African countries see women going to great lengths using dangerous skin bleaches, painful laser treatments and a variety of potions to lighten their natural complexions. The popular African singer Denicia recently made international headlines for lightening her skin so much that she is now almost unrecognizable. After doing so, she then hawked a bleaching cream called “Whitenicious” to women. When asked about her transformation and whether she was implying that white skin was better than black skin she said simply, “White means pure.”
I’m pretty sure that translates to “white means pasty” where I live. None of my friends are interested in lightening their skin and a golden glow is still the coveted look. But either way it seems like a tragedy that what all of us most want is what we don’t have. While I’m all for women doing what they want with their bodies, I would hope that no one, no matter how light- or dark-hued their natural complexion is, ever feels badly about the skin they’re born in. Bodies were never made to all look the same so let’s embrace the beautiful variety in those differences. Whether your skin is pale, tan, caramel, dark chocolate or even freckled, splotchy, wrinkly or bumpy, it’s your skin.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to look for parasols online.