Deeper than the surface: Exploring symbolic cultural cues behind skin color among three groups of women of Chinese heritage

Hsin Yu Chen, Nina G. Jablonski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


We integrated cosmetic and appearance-related scenario elicitation and in-depth interviews to explore aesthetic attitudes toward skin color in bicultural contexts among three groups of emerging Chinese adults. Results indicated that Chinese women, who grew up in China until age 18 and then moved to the US, generally leaned toward Chinese culture, found lighter skin more beautiful, and chose shades of makeup foundation lighter than their skin color. Chinese adoptees, raised in the US by Euro-American parents, leaned toward Euro-American culture, considered tanned skin more attractive, and chose darker colored foundations in most social contexts other than professional. Chinese Americans, raised in the US by first-generation Chinese parents, expressed mixed preferences. Women’s preferences revealed how everyday decisions reflect cultural beliefs and symbolic values behind skin color, suggesting that attitude formation is contextually dependent. People favor different shades of foundation makeup for different occasions, suggesting agentic awareness and the use of behavioral modification to gain acceptance in a given context. Appearance manipulation is a form of self-expression and conveys sociocultural cues. Understanding subtle sociocultural meanings and aesthetics in complex cultural contexts has significant implications for body image and colorism-related research, promoting the exploration of cultural influences on appearance, ideal skin color internalization, and decision-making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)136-163
Number of pages28
JournalAmerican Journal of Cultural Sociology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science


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