Indonesia: Searching for a face like Michael Jackson

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia – On any given day, the poolside of the Yogyakarta Hyatt Regency Hotel swims with pasty, Vitamin-D-deprived European and American flesh. Businessmen snatch a few hours of sunshine between meetings, warming their bellies in the tropical morning rays. Visiting honeymooners make the most of clear spells to sip cocktails in the sunshine while they bake in coconut-scented tanning oil.

As the Westerners cook themselves brown, a hundred meters down the street, at the Michael Jackson Whitening House, Indonesian men and women pay exorbitant fees to have their dark skin scrubbed, scraped and burned away with exotic chemicals.

Here, in this two-story, art-deco “skincare laboratory,” clients are sold a dream: The promise of brightness, lightness and, eventually — if they continue the treatment for long enough — whiteness.

Clients visiting the Whitening House for treatments on a recent afternoon expressed disbelief and confusion at the idea that light-skinned foreigners would voluntarily spend time in the sunshine, purposely darkening their skin.

“I’ve thought about it, but I just can’t understand these people!” said 26-year-old Ilyas Ardianto, who was at the Whitening House for a facial and “whitening mask.” “I really, really want to have white skin but those people are doing that to themselves — sun-tanning! It’s crazy.”

The Michael Jackson Whitening House is just one of several salons and clinics in this student-filled city of half a million in Central Java that offers skin-whitening treatments.

The salons, which are most popular with the city’s wealthy and young elite, offer a more extreme version of skincare that is already commonplace in Indonesia. In supermarkets and drugstores here, major brands offer a vast selection of skin-lightening products, from soap to lotions to “restorative” face masks that promise astonishing results.

Far from taboo, the cosmetic process of skin-lightening seems to have become a popular and mainstream form of self-beautification among young Indonesians. Interviews with several 20-somethings and teenagers in this city revealed that most young people find the use of skin-lightening products and the more extreme “treatments” entirely acceptable, if prohibitively expensive.

“I just feel more beautiful when I’m looking white,” said 21-year-old Dian Pertiwi Sulistianingtyas, who said she visits a whitening salon twice a month for cosmetic lightening facials. “Every day we see these people on television – actors, musicians, people like that – they always look so beautiful, so white!”

Indeed, Indonesian television shows, particularly the ubiquitous and hugely popular soap operas, almost exclusively feature extremely fair-skinned actors. In this country of more than 240 million people, this light-skinned “elite” has become a yardstick for stereotypical Indonesian beauty, fueling the demand for skin-whitening care.

Staff at the Michael Jackson Whitening House described the process of skin-lightening as returning a person’s skin to its most natural, meaning its lightest, brightest, color.

Supervisor Tika Mustika-Wati said that she tells clients to examine the small patch of skin on their chest, where their breastbone meets the skin. There they will find the lightest skin on their body, she said, and one’s goal should be to make the rest of one’s skin as light as that small, pale, nodule of flesh.

In order to do so, the Michael Jackson Whitening House offers a host of treatments of escalating severity and cost. A simple one-and-a-half hour facial, which includes having one’s face enveloped in an “Australian Milk Whitening Mask,” costs about $25 – about a week’s salary for the average university graduate here. For a bit more, clients can treat themselves to “chemical whitening,” “face peeling,” and full-body whitening courses.

Mustika-Wati said some customers go too far.

Some of the more abrasive treatments can leave the customer’s skin feeling very sensitive, she said. Many clients — particularly wealthy young women — are prone to getting obsessed with the goal of brightening their skin and will come in day after day for more treatments, she said.

“It happens all the time. We’re always polite to them, but sometimes we have to just get out a type of cream that really doesn’t do anything,” Mustika-Wati said. “That way, at least they’re getting something and they feel satisfied.”

Initial treatment at the Michael Jackson Whitening House is just the start of a long road, Mustika-Wati said. To truly achieve the lightest skin possible, her clients have to submit to a rigorous regime of lotions, potions and continued skin “maintenance,” meaning regular trips to her salon.

In addition to morning, afternoon and evening lotions that the Whitening House sells in tiny pink pots, clients must also regularly apply sun block to keep out dreaded ultraviolet rays, she said.
Failure to adhere to this regime could result in the catastrophic, she said: Sensitive, treated skin could become even darker than before the treatment began.

At the nearby Ambarrukmo Plaza mall, several 20-somethings and teenagers enjoying a snack at the food court shrugged at the mention of skin-whitening treatments.

“I’ve never tried it, but I think it’s probably cool,” said Bayu Dhika Atmanindra, 26. “No one’s ever complained about my skin, so I haven’t felt the need to do it.”

Asked if he had heard of the Michael Jackson Whitening House, Dhika Atmanindra and his two friends looked at each other and shrieked with laughter.

“What? You’re serious?" he asked in disbelief. "That’s seriously what it’s called?”