Motionless on the footpath of a chaotic street in Vietnam, a girl stared up at a billboard. An image of elegance, the photo was of a woman frozen in a moment of pure joy. As the girl slipped on gloves that ran up to her shoulders, lifted the hood of her jumper and fastened her mask, she flipped a glance back at the poster and joined the chaotic traffic.
Absurd not for the size of the image or the state of dress, the billboard looked completely out of place for one reason: the woman in the photo was white.
The desire to have lighter, whiter skin is a trend that has taken Vietnam by storm. With women covering their skin even for the briefest of travels outside, the intense heat seems to be worth the cost.
In Vietnam, having lighter skin seems synonymous with beauty, virtue and purity. Girls begin to cover up before going outside as they reach puberty and an age where they are affected by the social stigmas attached to having dark skin. Some mothers take to covering their daughters as young as seven to ensure their skin will be fairer when they come of age.
Female Vietnamese student, Trang Le, believes that the trend comes from social conditioning, idolising Korean actresses in film and an age-old notion that the rich were fairer than the poor.
“I have to cover up when I go out. It really bothers me and takes a lot of time. I always think of the ways to make my skin lighter,” Le says.
Many take to lotions and bleaching creams to achieve a fairer complexion, fueling an industry obsessed with skin peels, skin creams and ‘white bathing’ – a process that involves bathing in bleach.
A stark contrast to the situation in Australia, more and more people are suffering from low levels of vitamin D because of the trend.
According to a spokeswoman for the Cancer Council QLD, covering up in clothing that is black or dark aid in absorbing UV rays and provide further protection against the sun.
As thousands travel through the streets of Vietnam each day, many dress in dark, hooded jumpers, long-sleeved shirts, gloves and scarves. This is a polar opposite to the minimal clothing worn around town by women in a similar climate in Australia.
“I don’t think it’s healthy, because women with light skin get little of vitamin D from the sunshine and another reason is, when they sue lotions to make their skin better, they make their health worse,” Le says.
“I think women with (natural) tan are very healthy.”
The trend, however, is not only influencing the opinions of women around the country. Already men are beginning to cover up more of their skin when outdoors for long.
An Hoang, a male Vietnamese student, agrees that the trend affects the perception men have of women.
“Boys have a better first impression in girls who have lighter skin. Women with lighter skin look more elegant and beautiful, at least in people’s perception. Some think darker skinned persons look somewhat not clean,” Hoang says.
“For me, honestly, I sometimes feel that I need lighter skin, but not all the time … I’m a boy and dark skin somehow makes me look manlier.”
As skin lightening becomes part of a culture of men and women across Vietnam, is the finger pointed at the desire to have what we aren’t naturally given, or is it the advertising and popular culture that will have to answer for the health risks?