Skin Lightening Is Over
Wssuming you’ve been living on Earth for the last couple of years, you probably know that racial politics are in an upheaval not seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Cultures all over the world are grappling with the reality of white supremacy and its effect on our daily lives. Racism isn’t a simple issue of black vs. white, but rather a hugely complicated web of behaviors and subconscious biases, and one of its insidious side effects is colorism. Colorism is a sneaky phenomenon that lots of people don’t even notice until it’s pointed out to them, but it’s really very simple: light skin is pretty, and dark skin isn’t. While colorism is ultimately a function of white supremacy, it transcends race. Across cultures, from India to Iran to Japan, light skin is sought after, and dark skin is seen as a problem that needs correcting. This beauty standard has resulted in a widespread culture of shaming dark skin, portraying dark-skinned people of color negatively in media, and pushing millions of beauty products purported to lighten one’s skin. The whole world is undergoing a reckoning with racism, and the beauty community is no exception. As a result, skin lightening products may be cancelled for good.
If you’re melanin-deficient like me, you may not be privy to the controversy behind skin-lightening beauty products, but women of color all over the world have had these creams and serums marketed to them relentlessly, with the underlying message: your skin isn’t white enough. Model and activist Seema Hari recalls growing up with dark skin in India and being told explicitly that her skin color made her unlovable. Colorism runs rampant in South Asia, and the popular Indian skincare brand Fair & Lovely has generated plenty of controversy for their overtly racist ads. Even countries where most people are pretty fair, like Japan, sell a wide range of whitening products for the skin. And here in the U.S, these harmful beauty standards have a hold on us in the Internet age. Celebrities like Priyanka Chopra and Blac Chyna have endorsed lightening products in the past, and world-famous beauty guru Jeffree Star made some pretty questionable jokes about skin bleaching back in his Myspace days.
The skin whitening industry and its colorism isn’t just emotionally harmful—it’s physically dangerous, too. Their products are poorly-regulated and have been shown to contain a range of toxic chemicals such as hydroquinone and even mercury, which is known to cause damage to the kidneys. Nigerian dermatologist Anita Benson reports seeing clients struggling with thinned, damaged skin after using whitening creams. Some people are even resorting to injectable skin lighteners, which the FDA stresses isn’t safe. Pushing these products is clearly unethical, but as long as we live in a world where light skin is the ultimate in beauty, they’re probably not going anywhere.
The harmful practice of skin bleaching is rooted in colorism, which is rooted in racism, and that’s not the kind of problem that gets fixed overnight. But, little changes like the ones taking place in beauty brands might be a good way to at least do damage control. Skincare companies have started to look more critically at their lines of products and have either rebranded their lightening products or pulled them altogether. L’Oreal recently announced their decision to remove words like ‘light’ and ‘fairness’ from their products and branding. Similarly, Japanese company Kao axed the word ‘bihaku’, which is written with the characters for ‘beautiful’ and ‘white’, from all their packaging. Even Fair & Lovely rebranded themselves as Glow & Lovely, a sure sign of changing attitudes toward skin color in India. Some might argue these changes are performative, but maybe we shouldn’t underestimate the power of advertising—it did a lot to cause this mess, so maybe it can fix it?
The beauty community has become a much more welcoming place in the last several years, and it’s changed with the times as racial awareness has swelled in the U.S. This last year has shone a spotlight on the things that really matter, and one of those things is loving yourself. The beauty community is getting better about embracing the things that make us so beautifully diverse and tossing out dated standards that enforce prejudices. The best way to be beautiful is to be healthy and happy in the skin you’re in.
Rowan Thompson - May 10, 2021
Harvin, Darian Symoné. “Skin Whitening Products Get a Rebrand, But It Doesn't Erase Centuries of Colorism.” Allure, 14 Sept. 2020, https://www.allure.com/story/end-of-skin-whitening-products.
McGee, Oona. “Japanese Beauty Brand Drops Word 'Whitening' from Its Products.” Japan Today, 2 Apr. 2021, https://japantoday.com/category/features/lifestyle/japanese-beauty-brand-drops-the-word-'whitening'-from-its-products.
Ramirez, Rachel. “Beauty Companies Are Changing Skin-Whitening Products. But the Damage of Colorism Runs Deeper.” Vox, Vox, 30 June 2020, https://www.vox.com/first-person/2020/6/30/21308257/skin-lightening-colorism-whitening-bleaching.