When I was a teenager in school, my friend and I made it our goal to lighten our naturally dark, two-toned lips. Our game plan would be to excessively scrub at our lips in hopes that the melanin would just be rubbed off. It’s silly when I think about it now. Still, I recall having this conversation about disliking our two-toned lips with a few of my friends too. But why do we actually feel this way?

Ads like these help create unnecessary insecurity for people born with naturally dark lips. 

First off, let’s talk about how our lips darken. 

While it could be due to habits such as smoking, a huge portion of us with dark lips don’t smoke. Like the rest of our skin, our lips contain melanin. Melanin is produced by the melanocytes in our skin, and is the pigment in our skin that protects us from the sun’s UV rays. If we were born with darker skin, that means we were born with more melanin. Our melanin levels can also increase due to sun exposure. UV rays trigger the melanocytes in our skin to produce more melanin, resulting in darker skin, aka a suntan. This is the skin’s way of protecting itself from damage. 

According to the American Cancer Society, people who have more melanin in their skin have a lower risk of sunburn and skin cancer. Because of our melanin and living in sunny climates, the sun may give our lips a tan too, and that could be the main reason for our lips darkening over time. Lip discolouration (and this includes pale/purple lips) could also just be due to our genetics, or conditions like anaemia. Most commonly though, most of us have had our two-toned lips since we were babies or children. Either way, it’s something a lot of us do not have control over, just like our skin tone. 

So why are two-toned/dark lips so undesirable?

Asian beauty standards have always idolised pinker and lighter skin. Growing up as a brown gal myself, it severely affected my self-esteem to have friends and relatives comment on how dark my skin was. One of my first school crushes even said that he preferred my best friend over me because she had fair skin! While that broke my 7-year-old heart, thankfully I unlearned this notion of ‘whiter = better’ quite early on, probably when I was a pre-teen. Years later, I learned that this was largely due to Asian beauty standards being heavily influenced by eurocentric beauty standards. 

The word ‘eurocentric’ means to focus on European culture or history and to think that it is more important than the culture or history of other regions. Asian beauty standards prefer European features like light skin over dark skin, double eyelids over monolids, a high nose bridge over a flat one, light pink lips over brown ones. Also in Asia, there is a deep-rooted cultural belief that associates dark skin with hard labour and poverty, whereas pale skin portrays a more comfortable life indoors, and therefore a higher socioeconomic status. But this doesn’t just stop in Asia.

A report put together by Huberta Jackson-Lowman, a professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, analyzed studies involving African American girls and their self-esteem. The study found African American girls' self-esteem was significantly  lower growing up than their white peers. To add on to that, girls with "whiter" features (lighter skin and straighter hair) had a higher sense of  self-esteem than those with darker skin or curlier hair.  Eurocentrism in beauty is still prevalent everywhere on the planet.

[image source: unknown]

Skin whitening products flood the shelves of our Asian supermarkets and pharmacies, but what’s the trendy new ‘solution’ for dark lips?  

On the safer side of things, lip balms with sunscreen aim to provide sun protection and halt excess melanin production, but on the other hand, some treatments like lip laser therapy aim to do the opposite by actually eliminating the melanin that’s already present in your lips. Lip lasers work by breaking down the melanin pigments in your lips. Side effects may include burns, uneven skin tone, and a higher risk of sun damage. Now, not only are lip lasers on the rise, but so are semi-permanent lip tattoos or ‘lip embroidery’ (‘sulam bibir’ in Malay).

Shockingly, I have seen lip tattooing being referred to as  ‘dark ethnic lip correction’, as if there’s something incorrect about the natural ethnic darkness in our lips. Many local beauty parlours advertise semi-permanent lip tattoos as a method to cover or ‘correct’ dark lips rather than just adding some colour to your lips to save you a step in your makeup routine.

Local beauty parlour refers to semi-permanent lip tattoos as 'dark ethnic lip correction'.

Well needless to say, I’ve embraced the darkness in my lips! 

While I do not think having a personal preference for lighter/pinker lips is technically wrong, I do think we shouldn’t feel like our two-toned/darker lips are unattractive and that it should be ‘corrected’ by lasers or semi-permanent tattoos in order to be considered pretty. We’re all aware that asian beauty standards glorify western ideals, so we shouldn’t feel like we have to conform to that because it is simply not a fact and it is definitely something we should unlearn.

Unlearning beauty standards starts by uplifting each other. If you hear a friend bringing themselves down because of their darkness, remind them that there’s nothing wrong with their melanin! Our melanin is a godsend that’s here to protect our skin from sun damage, and that should never be a problem. If you are as insecure as I once was, hoping all my melanin would be scrubbed off, I hope this reassures you that your dark/brown/pale/purple/black or whatever colour lips you were born and grew up with, are normal, perfectly enough, and every ounce as beautiful as pink ones you see in the magazines.

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