Risky Cosmetics Case Study

1549 Words 7 Pages
On February 5, 1931, the South China Morning Post, in an article titled “Risky Cosmetics”, reported on a new Ordinance in Singapore to prohibit the sale and import of cosmetics containing lead. The article described, in English, that several Chinese women in Singapore of “fairly good social position” had been blinded or paralysed by lead-laced face powder, while others had given birth to babies with birth defects or even stillborn infants. The poisonous powder had allegedly been manufactured in Guangzhou, where according to a doctor, a woman had been poisoned. The article also reported that the poison face powder had travelled to Penang and across the Malay Peninsula. The language in the Hong Kong article echoed that of accounts
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From ancient Rome to Edo Japan, people have literally died to be beautiful, but how and why people indulge the dangerous desires for beauty at any cost has always been informed by particular historical circumstances. While at first glance, the consumption of risky cosmetics in 1930s Singapore seems irrationally vain and frivolous, a Chinese woman’s choice to chemically whiten her skin was embedded in a series of larger historical processes: Technologies of photographic and cinematic reproduction introduced new beauty ideals in women’s magazines and in movies, while European, US, and later Japanese colonial political power conditioned women to desire whiteness. Technologies of packaging, mass-production, and branding provided produced new cosmetics for women to consume, while global networks of colonial capitalism and transregional networks of diasporic Chinese moved these products across regional and national borders. Finally, this “social life” of the risky cosmetic became visible as newspapers across the colonies reported on the colonial government’s attempt to regulate the movement of Chinese goods and the adornment of Chinese women’s bodies (Appadurai, 1986). Thus, this single anecdote points to larger histories of science, technology, colonialism, capitalism, and …show more content…
While some historians of fashion and consumption in early twentieth-century China have argued that Chinese people made decisions about what to wear or what kind of toothpowder to purchase based on their rising sense of and attachment to the nation, others have argued that Chinese people actually desired the exotic novelty of foreign commodities (Dikötter, 2006; Gerth, 2003). Though these viewpoints diverge on the place of nation in informing consumption, they both assume that nation and foreign constituted a fundamental dichotomy that Chinese people faced when navigating everyday life. A similar binary has been articulated by anthropologists who have examined beauty consumption practices in Asia and Africa after World War II (Ashikari, 2003; Glenn 2008). They describe this consumption as driven by a tension between global and local, in which global commodities and practices adapt to local culture. Both dichotomies of national/foreign and global/local suggest implicitly that global is Western, and that this Western global is modern. To de-centre the West from the global, and to break down dichotomies of national/foreign and global/local, this history of cosmetics in the Chinese world requires a multi-sited analysis that considers how people, commodities, images, and ideas moved not only from Paris to Shanghai, but from Tokyo to Taibei and Fujian to

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