Home » I used skin lightening cream that stung my face because I thought I was too brown for K-pop

I used skin lightening cream that stung my face because I thought I was too brown for K-pop

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I once searched on YouTube ‘how to look Korean’.
And that's so embarrassing to write.
Because not only does it disregard everything about who I am as a brown person, but it fetishises an entire ethnicity.
But when I was 14 years old, I didn’t even stop to question it. I was simply conducting research on how to be a ‘better version’ of myself.
In 2014, around when I was 13, I fell in love with K-pop (Korean pop).
It was an exciting new world that sucked me into the depths of a long battle with my self-image, a war I unconsciously waged the moment I bought my first BB cream that was much too light for my skin.
Five young members of a female K-pop band standing closely together

South Korea K-Pop band Red Velvet. Credit: SM Entertainment

An alternative to Western pop culture

For me, K-pop was an alternative to the Western pop figures I had once admired.
It was the first time I had seen Asian people at the forefront of beauty. And as a non-white person, I was so excited to see something that was made for me. But that was the issue, it wasn’t really made for me.

I soon found that there was little room for dark-skinned Sri Lankan girls in Korean beauty standards.

I had swapped the white-washed beauty standards I’d grown up with for yet another unachievable goal.

For a while, I found joy in talking with my mostly Asian friends I had at school about the intricacies of our niche. We loved using references, or speaking in Korean slang, and laughing when the ‘white girls’ at our school didn’t get our humour. It was like a rejection of all things Westernised, to try and feel like we had a place in the world. Maybe that was part of the problem - I had swapped the white-washed beauty standards I’d grown up with for yet another unachievable goal.
I wouldn’t say that this teenage experience was much different from other young women, no matter their race. Amongst all the range of issues that teenagers encounter, trying and ‘failing’ to meet beauty ideals is an unfortunate shared experience.
Five members of a female K-pop band standing together on red carpet.

Gabrielle says Korean beauty standards were impossible to achieve as a brown girl. Source: AAP

The K-pop ideal

In Korean beauty standards, or the K-pop visual, you have to be slim, relatively small in stature, light skinned, have a tiny face, a high nose bridge, and big eyes. All of this wasn’t exactly achievable for a 13-year-old me.
I was a chubby-faced brown girl who was still coming into herself. So naturally, I hated how much I varied from this ideal.
I controlled my eating, I covered my body up to prevent myself from getting darker, and I used skin lightening cream that stung my face every time I slathered it on.
The brown skin that belonged to my family was a curse to me. I could see my friends around me also struggling to fit these ideals. Because people are diverse, and mangling ourselves into moulds would never quite work.

I thought, one day I’d get there. One day I could become the person I wanted to be. But as the years passed by, and I went to concerts, bought makeup, albums, and the K-fashion, I was never really satisfied when I caught glimpses of myself in the mirror.

Fighting a losing battle

There wasn’t a specific moment in my life where I had noticed that my interest in Korean beauty standards had become self-destructive.
Because, even when I was using skin whitening products, I didn’t have an ounce of hesitation. There was no ‘too far’. Maybe it was the day I went out to the beach and I thought that I was a little tired of sitting on the sand all covered up.
Maybe my brown skin, the skin I would live in for the rest of my life no matter how much I wanted it to change, deserved to take solace in the cool waves on a summer day.
Or maybe it was when I moved away from my friend group and I grew out of my adoration for K-pop. I realised that spending so much time hating myself was … exhausting. I looked at the dark-skinned women in my life and watched them unflinchingly bare their face to the sun. I saw that the warmth embracing their skin was a glorious thing in itself. Like dawn hitting the earth.
A girl wearing a hat

When she outgrew her obsession with K-Pop, Gabriella says she started accepting her brown skin. Source: SBS

Constantly fighting against your physical or mental self will always be a losing battle. That's the great thing about being human. Little pieces of who you are will always sprout again, no matter how many times you try to wipe it away. One day, I decided to stop stamping out these sprouts, and instead encourage them to flourish.
K-pop introduced me to niche Asian communities that welcomed me readily. It showed me that beauty didn’t belong only to white people. It gave me diverse friends who helped me embrace my South Asian identity. K-pop holds a special and complex place in my heart. I still listen to it sometimes, and I still love Asian pop-culture as an avid anime and manga fan. Because at the end of the day these things are fun.
I would be ignorant to say that my self-love still doesn’t require further growth. I have destructive ideals in my head that arise at an instant. But I’ve learned how to talk about it. I’ve learned how to confide in others that I’m struggling. I’ve learned how to smile at myself in the mirror.
Struggling with your self image doesn’t make you weak, or confused.

It means that as young people, our identities are ever-changing. It means that sometimes I think I’m gorgeous, and sometimes I can’t imagine being loved. And that both of those existences at the same time are okay.

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