“Beautiful White”

During my senior year at Duke University, I pursued a Graduation With Distinction for both International Comparative Studies and Visual and Media Studies majors by examining skin whitening practices in China and Taiwan.

You may visit my separate thesis website for my thesis abstract, corresponding project images, and updates at www.thesis.elysiapan.com.

I decided to investigate self-worth of beauty in Asian women because of my personal intrigue about my identity and culture. I was born and raised in the States and have always considered myself an American born Chinese. Growing up in Connecticut, my friends were predominantly Caucasian.

During high school, it was increasingly popular for girls to go to tanning salons in order to achieve a “sun-kissed glow” that made them look “hot” and “attractive.” When I went to China for the first time, I was confused as to why Chinese women looked so pale in comparison and why they went to such great lengths in order to shield themselves from the sun’s rays. Instead of using bronzers, I found out that Asian women used skin whitening products to achieve their ideal beauty.

We live in a global world – so why are Eastern and Western beauty ideals seemingly different? I wanted to examine if there were any underlying definitions of female “beauty.” Also, I wanted to research whether or not established ideologies such as imperialism and sexism were at work when multinational cosmetic companies marketed skin whitening products to Chinese and Taiwanese female consumers. Lastly, I wanted to see how consumers receive and appropriate skin whitening advertisements and practices.

For my thesis research, I was able to travel to Taipei, Taiwan and Beijing China on October 12, 2012 to October 21, 2012 and conduct on the ground research for my thesis. I first went to Taipei, Taiwan and met up with cosmetic company marketing executives and employees to discuss the business side of the skin whitening industry and also interviewed younger skin whitening product consumers. I also talked to many beauty consultants to hear their scripts that are used to sell to potential customers and to hear their general observations of their clientele, all within my IRB Protocol parameters. During the Beijing leg of my trip, I hosted a gathering of sixteen predominantly Taiwanese expatriate women and some of their husbands to come over my godmother’s home for dinner and a focus group discussion. I asked the women questions related to overall historical perceptions of Chinese/Taiwanese beauty and their consumer relations with cosmetic companies.

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  1. lartigue
    lartigue July 16, 2013 at 3:34 am · Reply

    Dear Elysia
    My name is Romain, I am managing director of AKQA in Paris france. While I was doing some online research on Asia and Whitening products, I discovered your thesis work, which is quite amazing. I was wondering if you would have some time to answer a few questions, have brief discussion over Skype as I would love to hear more about the subject, and what you think are the potential aspiration of asian women beyond the “technical” whitening that these products can provide.

    let me know if that sound possible for you. my email is romain.lartigue@akqa.com

    Have a great day


    1. Kailai Lisa Han
      Kailai Lisa Han August 29, 2015 at 2:19 pm · Reply

      Dear Ms. Elysia Pan,

      My name is Kailai (Lisa) Han. I am currently a 12th-grade student in the International Baccalaureate Program at Pensacola High School in Pensacola, Florida.

      Last year, around the middle of the school year, you made a visit to our school to speak to us students about Duke University. After you spoke with us, you let us know that if we wanted to find out any additional information, we could just look you up to find out more on the Duke website. So at the end of the day, I came home and looked you up because I wanted to find out some more information about Duke, and I stumbled across your honors thesis website.

      As a teenager who was born in Beijing but was raised in the United States since the age of 2, I really found myself understanding your thesis paper on another level, as those are the same beauty standards that I’d always heard from my own female relatives. In the International Baccalaureate program, one of the requisites to obtain our diploma is to write a 4,000-word Extended Essay Paper. After reading your thesis, I was inspired to explore the same idea of beauty in my own Extended Essay, and examine the two conflicting beauty ideas that I’d been told my entire life. My own research question is this: How does juxtaposing the skin-whitening culture in China with the skin-darkening culture in the United States illuminate the societal similarities and differences? In my EE, as inferred from the title, I compared and contrasted the skin-whitening and skin-darkening beauty ideas in China and in the United States, both historical and modern. I took a lot of inspiration from your thesis, and cited it in my Bibliography when I analyzed an advertisement on a skin-whitening cream from a Chinese company.

      Because of your own experience while writing your thesis about the Chinese beauty idea, I would be very grateful if you would grant me the opportunity to interview you for my own Extended Essay. I know that you actually made a trip to China and had the experience of speaking to people in a completely different society, so that you understand on a firsthand level the differences between their mentality and the one in the United States. I would be honored to have the chance to hear your own thoughts on this subject, and be able to cite the interview as another one of my sources in my EE paper.

      Thank you so much for your time and consideration in reading this email.


      Kailai Lisa Han