Illustration by Cristina Pîrvu
Putih, Bersih, Cantik (White, Clean, Beautiful). Tracing Beauty and Color among Women in Bali and Closer to Home (Romania)
Irina Savu Cristea
The desire to have a lighter skin color and the efforts to achieve it are rarely just purely individual choices based on personal style and preferences. Rather the ideal(ized) tones of women’s skin (in Bali and elsewhere) hint at social hierarchies and structures created through and perpetuated by skin color, both in the colonial past and nowadays. In this piece, I present the costs that young women in Bali pay to feel like meaningful beings in a global cultural context where the skin color they’re born with is frequently judged as “dirty” or associated with “backwardness.” Next, looking at my experience as a “white” woman in Bali (and at the consumer habits of Westerners who save money the entire year to get tanned on the beaches of places like Bali), I intend to show how the bodies of women who think of themselves as “modern,” are also subjected to beauty standards regarding skin color. As a closing reflection, I bring up the privilege of white Romanian women to be “cosmopolitan” and able to choose to exoticize their skin through vacations at the beach, tanning products, or tanning beds. Behind this privilege lie hierarchies and social inequalities generated by skin color. Many Romanian Roma women are judged and disadvantaged, similarly (to some extent) to the Balinese women, because they were born with darker skin
Irina Savu Cristea Irina is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Free University Berlin and her research interests revolve around experiences of womanhood; self-making practices; articulating, managing, and negotiating emotions and ways of being-in-the-world. She has done fieldwork in Romania, Germany, and Indonesia, integrating social, psychological, and feminist anthropologies.
Cristina is an illustrator and animator based in Bucharest. She has been freelancing since 2020, creating character design and 2D hand drawn animation. With a passion for characters and stories, in her personal work she often explores the female form, human emotion and alternative beauty, looking for inspiration in her own daily life.
Katia Pascariu is an actress and a cultural activist. She studied Drama & Performing Arts at UNATC, obtaining her BA in 2006, and got her master’s degree in Anthropology in 2016 at the University of Bucharest, where she currently works and resides. She is part of several independent theatre collectives that do political and educational projects – Macaz Cooperative, 4th Age Community Arts Center and Replika Center, with special focus on multi- and inter – disciplinarity. She develops, together with her colleagues, artistic and social programs, in support of vulnerable and marginal communities, while promoting socially engaged art, accesibility to culture, with a main focus on: education, social justice, recent local history. She has been part of the casts of Beyond the Hills (C. Mungiu, 2012) and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (R. Jude, 2021), among others. She is working also within the artistic ensemble of the Jewish State Theatre in Bucharest. She performs in Romanian, English, French and Yiddish.
About a month or so after I arrived in Bali, when I already had the much longed-for tan on my face and arms (which I showed off in the selfies sent to my significant others in Europe), I stopped at a kiosk to look at some beautiful bracelets made of lava beads that caught my eye. In the few minutes I spent admiring the bracelets offer, the seller told me at least three times that I was beautiful. Once, even very beautiful. Tired, dusty, almost forty years old and with a pretty clear self-image, I took her compliments as pure marketing strategy. While I was trying on the bracelet I wanted to buy, she gently grabbed my arm and said: “What a beautiful skin!” The next moment, we started speaking at the same time, happy and excited to validate the beauty of my skin (this time I believed it too!). We both spoke in Indonesian, but each “in her own tongue”: ‘Yes, I’m finally tanned!!’ I said. ‘It’s so white!!’ she replied.  Two different perspectives. Like two beads so far away from each other that one could almost ignore the rigid string that unites them in the (shape of the) necklace of patriarchal and racialized norms of female beauty.
During my twenty months of ethnographic research in Bali, I interacted daily with young women, trying to understand their everyday lives, what it meant for them to have a fulfilling life, and how they managed their emotions. Anthropologists have researched Bali intensely, but the main research participants were almost always men. Rarely did women’s voices get space in the thousands of pages written about Bali. My research brings forth women from different socio-economic contexts, in an attempt to show the complexity of female subjectivities, which was often blurred by the “paradisiacal” leaflet image of the smiling Balinese, frangipani flower behind her ear.
In this piece, I focus exclusively on skin whitening practices as a racial(ized) beauty standard. The key physical elements that define female beauty for the women I interacted with were: being slim; having long and tidy hair; inner beauty (manifested through a friendly attitude, mediating possible conflicts, calm voice, etc.); a clean complexion (possibly wearing make-up); and “white” skin. Common to these elements is the idea of cleanliness (inner and outer), of eliminating “imperfections,” “disturbance,” and ultimately whatever might be considered “dirty.” Skin, in particular, then becomes a productive arena for discussing socio-cultural norms of cleanliness/purity (closely related to social acceptability and status) and of socio-cultural shame and fear of what is seen as “dirty” (and therefore to be avoided or even excluded from the community). Skin is “the alpha and omega of racial differences” and changing skin color is an attempt to modify racial elements. In many of the Asian former colonies, white(r) skin became proof and even a condition of beauty, a form of symbolic or racial capital that increases the chances for a better life. All the women I interacted with expressed, in different contexts, their preference for whiter skin and made daily efforts to achieve it and to avoid the shame of being called black.
Putih, bersih, cantik (white, clean, beautiful) is the phrase I heard most often during conversations about body and self-esteem, and it seemed like a mantra meant to insure an ideal model of beauty. There is no equivalent expression used for men, and gender is relevant here. The standards for white(r) skin are rarely applied for men, and dark(er) skin is even seen as a marker of masculinity. Although almost all men I spoke with told me that they wished for partners with white(r) skin, women rarely included skin color preferences in the description of their ideal partner. Although light skin color is not a “norm” in Indonesia, rather an imaginary ideal, the comments that women get about their skin color are “signs” that show them whether they are accepted by their group or not. “The very act of dropping remarks about each other’s skin color normalizes light skin as desirable; it is an example of the constant ‘surveillance’ that women carried out” and were subjected to.
When I first stepped into a minimarket in Bali, looking to buy a shower gel, I had the feeling that I was walking in a never-ending toothpaste aisle. All personal hygiene products seemed to be screaming at me—loud in upper case or quieter in lower case—that my skin would be white(r) if only I used them. From soaps, hydrating lotions or scrubs to heel ointment, intimate gels, and deodorants, they all promised to make your skin whiter.
“In Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation in the world, skin whitening products are ranked highest among all revenue-generating products in the cosmetics industry (…) and many have been deemed medically dangerous because they contain illegal ingredients.” Most of the research participants used at least one whitening product, on top of the usual hygiene products. Many women said that when they used them, they felt less ashamed of their darker skin, more confident, more beautiful. Most of them were inspired by K-Pop and J-pop celebrities. “I want to be white like a Japanese woman,” said Ayu,  a twenty-four-year-old woman from Singaraja. “This lotion is made in Korea, and I am using it to eventually look (white) like a Korean woman,” said Dessy (twenty-three years old).
After completing one year of post-secondary tourism training, Ariyani (twenty years old) was getting ready to leave her island and country for the first time. She had signed a two-year contract to work as a waitress in Maldives. The thought of being away for so long made her stuff her newly bought suitcase, so she asked me to help her sort her things to make sure she brought everything that she needed. All went well in the sorting process until we got to the whitening lotion. While for all the other hygiene and cosmetic products she had only bought one bottle each (enough to last until her first salary in Maldives), the whitening lotion presented itself in ten large tubes. Having tried and failed to convince Ariyani to pack fewer clothes, when I suggested she could leave out some of those tubes of whitening cream, three of her favorite shirts immediately flew out of her suitcase. “This (lotion) is the most important! What if I don’t find it there (in Maldives)?! Even so, I’m not sure I have enough for two years!”
During my fieldwork in Bali, the idea that there is “dirt” left on the body after washing cropped up. Being clean and being white seemed inseparable, and the practices to achieve “cleanliness” continued long after the shower. All the women I interacted with, even if they didn’t have time and money for regular scrubs (lulur), repeatedly told me that the skin was truly clean only after a good scrub, which would also help with the whitening. April (twenty-five years old) used an exfoliating product to make her lips “cleaner” (lighter). Because the exfoliant (like many other very cheap products) didn’t respect all the safety norms, April ended up with sore cracked lips for almost three weeks. Most of the young women were aware of the risks of using fake products and paid a lot of attention to the brands they used. Nevertheless, lured by a very low price, they would sometimes to try the products hoping there would be no visible or severe side effects.
It costs a lot to be beautiful!
On top of the negative effects of using dangerous products, the cost of whiter skin is an additional financial effort for women (as compared to men). More well-off women did not stop at the whitening products available in the stores but paid for expensive treatments in cosmetic salons. The women with less financial means would usually stop buying any special products altogether, especially after they turned forty, when their children were already bigger, and their chances to become grandmothers rose. In Bali, marriage and parenthood are social and spiritual success markers, a woman being considered “complete” once she becomes a mother. Many of the women older than twenty-six (almost all married and mothers) located the moment when they felt most beautiful during their lives to a time before getting pregnant. “We are raised to become perfect wives and mothers. After that, who has the time and money for skin care? Going to a salon is expensive! It costs a lot to be beautiful! What do men even know? It’s expensive to be a woman!” explained Nengah (thirty-three years old). Once they have secured their status in the community (by marrying or having children), generally the preoccupation with whitening their skin becomes less frequent or important. For most of the research participants (with less financial means) it becomes a cost they cannot afford anymore or that they chose to redirect to the wellbeing of their families.
To all of this, one should add the emotional costs. Many women admitted only later in our relationship that they used whitening products. On the one hand, this was linked to the shame they had felt in the past when they were told their skin was “black”—a constant reminder of the reason they started to use the products in the first place. On the other hand, the women who redefined what beauty meant for them (based on body positivity ideas, self-love concepts, and the focus on health) felt that continuing to use those products meant contradicting themselves, and this led to self-blaming.
Finally, we must consider the costs implied by the constant efforts to avoid exposure to the sun (and eventually tanning). At 35 degrees Celsius, most of the women drove their scooters wearing fluffy gloves, socks with their flip-flops, and a thin jacket worn backwards on purpose, to protect their neckline and arms from the sun. This means investing time and energy to buy these items, to put them on and take them off, and take care of them. Hands, arms, ankles, face, and neck are the areas that are more often exposed (visible) in public, and they are also the ones the women usually worry about and on which they apply most of the whitening products (especially the expensive ones). Moreover, the fear of getting tanned translates to costs of social visibility. Many women chose to spend more time indoors or not to leave their homes during the day, to limit their exposure to the sun.
Generally, the self-perception (or other people’s comments) that their skin wasn’t „white” enough made women withdraw from social contexts. Sometimes, kindergarten or primary school girls didn’t want to play outside with other children because some had told them they were „black.” After a similar experience, Cassandra (six years old) asked her older brother to delete the number of a neighbor boy from his WhatsApp as he had made her feel bad. Another girl told me she felt beautiful only when she was around friends with skin darker than hers: “Then I can feel somewhat white.” Despite all these costs, most of the research participants wished for a „white(r)” skin to be able to feel beautiful, to feel comfortable… in their own skin.
One of the roles of anthropology, closely linked to its aim to highlight people’s subjective experiences and their diverse voices, is to challenge the idea that those very experiences and voices are purely individual. Therefore, my research intends to show that these women do not define beauty nor try to attain it in a bubble of individual thinking, or in a political and historical vacuum. Rather, this process and the related practices are shaped by various political and cultural discourses.
The Indonesian Archipelago is populated by 300 ethnic groups that speak 700 languages and dialects, with six officially recognized religions. Despite the national motto “Unity in Diversity,” the Republic of Indonesia has its share of internal ethnic conflicts, the longest and still ongoing being the one related to the population of West Papua. Indonesian nationalist groups use political arguments linked to the refusal of the state to recognize the independence of the area to justify hate crime (e.g., calling West Papuans “monkeys”). By repeatedly referring to the “black” Papuan skin, this discourse hints at the superiority of the majority ethnic groups in Indonesia, those with white(r) skin: the “cleaner” ones, the “more beautiful” and thus “more civilized”. Other research shows that dark-skinned people in today’s Indonesia are perceived as “scary,” “criminal,” “smelly,” “dirty,” and “weird-looking”. Moreover, in the transnational context of global markets and cultural flows between Indonesia, Western countries, and especially North Asian countries, new ideals of ”modernity,” “global integration,” and cosmopolitanism emphasize the importance of the whiter (“cleaner”) skin.
In the past two decades, the link between the idea of “clean (therefore) beautiful (body)” and lighter skin is bolstered by the whitening products industry, which promotes a new beauty standard in Asia and beyond, based on the white and glowing skin model of Korean and Japanese celebrities. Hence the apparition of the term “Pan-Asian beauty”—which, among others, refers to “olive skin” (with yellow tones), black hair, and Western/Caucasian face traits (sharper nose, bigger eyes). This concept seems to imply higher tolerance and acceptance of darker skin as beautiful, but many authors argue that “olive skin” can mean different things across Asian territories, where different perceptions of “white skin” coexist. Although it rejects Western norms of beauty, the Pan-Asian ideal promotes a uniform “Asian specific” look. It homogenizes the racial differences across the continent and sets the skin color of just a few countries as representative for the entire Asian continent, thus reinforcing social hierarchies which place Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand—darker skin “race”) as subaltern to North Asia (Japan, Korea, China—whiter skin “race”).
The skin of the Dutch colonizer  from a century ago is no longer the main marker of female beauty as the Pan-Asian white takes over. But the latter is also rooted in colonial Indonesian history, albeit the Japanese occupation, and in current global integration strategies. As mentioned earlier, the Pan-Asian white is only represented by a few countries, thus not all white is beautiful. Sometimes, racial biases “taint” even the brightest white. “Ever since I was a kid, everyone has been mocking me for being too white. Some said my skin was too pale, others that it looked sickly. Some people even tell me I look like I’m dead! Maybe that’s because I have Chinese family roots…” (Alla, twenty-seven years old). Alla’s experience, in this case, can be explained by a history of discrimination against the Chinese minority in Indonesia. So even very white skin can acquire the symbolic racialized complexion of “inferior” or “dirty,” usually associated with darker skin.
The repeated attempts of the research participants to change their skin color shows the negotiations that Balinese women constantly conduct with themselves and others to navigate gendered, cultural, and racialized norms of social acceptance and self-worth.
Closer to home
It would be easy for a white woman like me to fall into the trap of the discourse about their culture: “that’s how things are there, in faraway Asia”. Are things very different though here, at home? 
So far, I have shown how women from several social strands in Bali, with diverse access to notions of body and beauty ideals, and of different social and biological ages, engage in skin whitening practices to feel less ashamed, more confident, and/or beautiful. To put in perspective the discussion about racial(izing) norms of female beauty, I would like to go back to the scene at the beginning of this article and to my pride in finally being tanned. I use this personal example to hint at the fact that beauty norms that imply changing skin color touch us too, the European women in Romania. Not all of us though, and not in the same ways. Still, many women use self-tan lotions, sunbed sessions, foundation creams meant to darken the skin, and so on. Sometimes, even the undesired tan line on the neck of a white woman can stand for cultural capital and status (“I can afford to spend my winter holidays in a warm country”). Other times, the same undesired tan line on a shoulder can become the (symbolic) sash of “Miss White Universe” (“Tan is exotic, I have the choice to get a temporary olive or chocolate skin!” which is both a requirement and a privilege in the Whiteness Beauty Pageant). My enthusiasm for my tanned arms (including the efforts made to achieve that) is possible not only because Western beauty standards exoticize darker skin, but also (and especially) because I was never told I was “black,” or „dirty,” thus unacceptable to my community. The same thing is not true for most Romanian Roma women, who are discriminated against based on their skin color. What passes as “exotic” or cosmopolitan at home (and as beautiful in Bali) in my case, is a disadvantage if not a threat, for most Roma women. Like a passport, skin allows us to cross—or not—social borders, based on its color.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 Even when tanned, my skin is still whiter than that of most of the research participants.
 Brenda Dixon Gottschild, The Black Dancing Body: A Geography From Coon to Cool, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
 Margaret L. Hunter. Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone, (New York and London: Routledge, 2005).
 Jeaney Yip, Susan Ainsworth, Miles Tycho Hugh, “Beyond Whiteness: Perspectives on the Rise of the Pan-Asian Beauty Ideal,” in Race in the Marketplace: Crossing Critical Boundaries, ed. Guillaume D. Johnson, Kevin D. Thomas, Anthony Kwame Harrison, and Sonya A. Grier, (Springer International Publishing, 2019), 73–85.
 L. Ayu Saraswati, “‘Malu’: Coloring Shame and Shaming the Color of Beauty in Transnational Indonesia,” Feminist Studies 38(1) (2012): 113–140.
 (Saraswati et al., 2013)
 (Saraswati et al., 2013: 120-121)
(Saraswati et al., 2013: 108)
 To ensure their anonymity, all the names in this piece are pseudonyms that the research participants chose for themselves.
 Evi Mariani, “Today’s Minkes: Racism at Heart of Jakarta-Papua Conflict,” The Jakarta Post, August 19, 2019, accessed March 13, 2023.
 Yudha Baskoro, “‘I Am Not a Monkey’: Papuans Protest against Racial Discrimination,” Jakarta Globe, August 22, 2019, accessed March 13, 2023.
 Saraswati, “‘Malu.’”
 Yip et al., “Beyond Whiteness.”
 Most of the territories that are now united under the name of Indonesia were Dutch colonies for 350 years. Indonesian islands were also under extremely violent Japanese occupation during World War II.
 Saraswati, “‘Malu.’”
 By “here” I mean the (current) Romanian society which I have been raised into and is more familiar to me than other European cultures