For over 50 years, white skin has been the dominant beauty ideal in Indonesia. Celebrities and models have mostly been white, and most people have aspired to have white skin.
But this wasn’t always the case. In pre-colonial times skin colour was thought and talked about in a wider variety of shades: not just white, but also yellow and brown. There was a time when beauty ideals reflected Indonesians’ broad range of indigenous skin tones.
It was upon the arrival of European colonialists that ideas of fair skin and its class connotations were established, which were then solidified by Hollywood, and more recently the North Asian Pop wave.
And while throughout these decades there have always been small counter currents of nationalism reminding us to embrace indigenous (darker) skin tones, these voices mostly remained merely virtuous and never really became mainstream aspirations. It seemed that the fair skin ideal would be forever ingrained in our nation’s cultural subconscious.
Yet more recently we have seen an emergent aspiration towards darker skin tones. More now than ever, the local fashion and beauty industry are employing ‘indigenous’ models, and darker-skinned celebrities are genuine beauty symbols, especially in urban Indonesia.
Are we seeing an inflection point? A real return to embracing Cantik Indonesia?
A brief history of Indonesia’s beauty ideals: transnational influences
Ayu Saraswati in her book Seeing Beauty Sensing Race explains that constructs of race, gender and skin color in Indonesia are actually the product of ‘transnational’ beauty ideals. In other words, the ideas that Indonesians have attached to specific physical traits in the last few hundred years, and definitions of what is beautiful are not just a product of the archipelago’s own socio-cultural context (e.g. colonialism), but also that of other countries.
In the oldest surviving Indonesian literature, Ramayana, imported from India, beautiful women are described as having white shining faces like the full moon. Indeed, India was the most dominant cultural influence in the Indonesian archipelago prior to the establishment of Islamic kingdoms and arrival of European colonialists.
Yet there is also strong evidence of darker skin ideals in classic Javanese Kakawin poetry: darker skin tones were described through colours of fruits and ingredients like mangosteen, palm sugar, or honey. At the time, ideals were many, beauty defined as the most exquisite form of whichever skin tone you had—not necessarily lighter shades.
Then hundreds of years later in the early 20th century, at the peak of Dutch colonialism, women’s magazines started to depict the epitome of beauty as images of Caucasian women. When Japan took over from 1942 to 1945, they challenged the Caucasian white beauty ideal with an Asian one, but essentially light skin remained the ideal.
No doubt, these colonial influences throughout Indonesian history laid the foundation of fair skin as the dominant aspiration. An aspiration that had been firmly rooted in Indonesians’ collective psyches through years of colonial segregation politics by the Dutch that placed Europeans as first class citizens, Northeast Asians as second class, and indigenous Indonesians as the lowest of all.
Hollywood Westernisation vs. Soeharto Javanisation
Since the late 1960s, American pop culture took over as the strongest influence on local definitions of beauty.
Brands like Lux capitalised on this trend and promoted western beauty standards by dramatizing the glamour of film stars in its ads. Lux often used international stars, like Jackie Lou and Bia Seidl, and favoured mixed race stars like Christine Hakim and Marissa Haque.
Yet around the same period local brands like Citra entered the personal care market with a very different proposition of indigenous beauty personified in Javanese princesses living in traditional palaces; In many ways, it offered a counter-narrative to the dominant European upper-class aspirations constructed from years of colonial segregation.
Indeed as Hollywood’s influence grew, Soeharto and his New Order regime also aggressively propagated Javanese values, in part to counter these western influences, namely hippy culture which was viewed as a ‘new left’, from corrupting the minds of Indonesian youth.
Citra’s case is particularly insightful. The evolution of beauty narratives it has employed in its advertising through the decades have closely mirrored these socio-political shifts.
For several years it had promoted an alternative skin tone ideal in ‘langsat yellow’, packaged in nationalist symbols of Javanese aristocracy and stories of “secret” herbal concoctions. But then, in the 90’s, as cultural globalisation accelerated, fair skin overwhelmingly dominated Indonesian pop culture from beauty pageants to soap operas, and Citra acquiesced to society’s obsession by launching its very first whitening product ‘Citra White Body Lotion’.
Modern Indonesia: The (re)emergence of the strong dark woman
We are now seeing something interesting; an emerging appreciation for darker-skinned Indonesian women.
Celebrities like Tara Basro, Eva Celia and Adinia Wirasti are some of the biggest names in entertainment today. And while there are still plenty of caucasian models in local fashion magazines, Indonesian models with darker skin tones, like Laras Sekar, are gracing covers more than ever.
The preference for light skin might not be completely gone, but there is undeniably a broadening of skin tones represented in today’s popular culture.
Some might say this is a by-product of growing national pride in the past decade, or of more recent social conversations around ethnic diversity. But we know from history that beauty aspirations are only genuine and lasting when they are driven by desire and aspiration, not by values and virtue (e.g. nationalism, “anti-West”).
What we’re seeing now is a genuine appreciation of darker skin tones, and it’s more likely to be driven once again by transnational influences.
The global feminist movement along with fitness trends are producing a new feminine ideal that is more confident and active. In contrast to the delicate fair skinned woman who stays indoors, historically regarded in Indonesia as urban upper class, today’s aspirational women are depicted as being out and about, unafraid of the sun, their skin ‘glowing’ and ‘alive’.
Also, the pervasiveness of hip-hop culture globally has brought not just African American culture, but also its aesthetics into global fashion and beauty trends—more diverse and more colourful. One doesn’t need to look far for evidence: Indonesians are the 4th largest population on Instagram and the top 10 most followed women today are either African-American (Beyonce, Nicki Minaj), hip-hop and R&B artists (Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez), or closely associated to hip-hop culture (the Kardashian sisters).
A new school of progressive beauty brands
These cultural forces are driving a transformation in the beauty industry in the form of a customer-driven mandate for more diversity, and the brands that have embraced this are currently those who are gaining the most traction.
The best example is Fenty Beauty with its 40 shades of foundation. The cosmetics brand, owned by superstar Rihanna, was one of the most anticipated launches and also one of the fastest growing brands today.
In Indonesia a similar shift is happening, with new local cosmetics brands like Makeover, Rollover Reaction and Luxcrime representing a more progressive vision of beauty and a broader range of skin tones. Meanwhile veteran beauty brands with much deeper pockets are at risk by remaining in potentially outdated portrayals of beauty.
This is not the first time Indonesia has seen a rise in appreciation towards indigenous beauty, but never has it been supported by such a strong wave of global cultural shifts. And in this era of Instagram, when global popular culture speaks in such a big away, it’s time to react.
So Indonesian beauty brands, if you’re reading this: Diversity. 2019.
Adri Reksodipoetro is managing director of Nation Insights, with offices in Jakarta and Singapore.