On a regular school day, after he wakes up, he takes a shower, scrubbing his body using soap made of papaya (Carica papaya), a fruit that’s said to have skin-whitening properties. Afterwards, he applies a facial whitening lotion, and before finally going to school he uses SPF 30 sunscreen, again with whitening properties, on his face and arms.Jose was one of many young people I met in my ethnographic work as part of the Chemical Youth Project, a research programme that sought to document and make sense of the different chemicals that young people use in their everyday lives, from cosmetics to cigarettes.Skin whitening among women has long been commonplace in the Philippines and other parts of Asia and the world but, while working on this project, I was struck by the fact that young men too, are using a plethora of whitening products. And that these products have proliferated in various retail outlets, from shopping malls to small sari-sari, or neighbourhood, stores.But this development is not unique to the Philippines either. A 2015 study found that the prevalence of skin-whitening product use among male university students in 26 low and middle-income countries was 16.7%. The figure was higher in many Asian countries: 17.4% in India, 25.4% in the Philippines, and 69.5% in Thailand.
In the Asia-Pacific region alone, the male cosmetics industry was estimated at $2.1 billion in 2016. Whiteners are likely to be a significant component of this figure; a 2010 study reported that 61% of all cosmetics in India had a whitening effect.How do we make sense of this phenomenon? First, it must be pointed that the preference for white skin, even among men, has existed in many parts of Asia since ancient times.In Heian Japan (794 to 1185 AD) and Ming China (1368–1644), handsome men were described as having white or pale skin. In one undated Philippine epic, the hero covers his face with a shield so that the sun’s rays will not “lessen his handsome looks. Researchers have suggested that, in many societies, fair skin was a mark of class distinction. In her 2012 book Living Color, American anthropologist Nina Jablonski explains:Others have suggested that the association of whiteness with purity became conflated with the idea that white skin signifies spiritual and physical superiority….