Recently I’ve fallen into the rabbit hole that is skincare. I’ve watched countless videos on YouTube from “beauty gurus” and skincare specialists. I’ve bought numerous products based on their recommendations. While learning about exfoliants and serums, I came across a video about racism in skincare. It was about skin bleaching, which is using a product, typically a cream, to lighten one’s skin. This is a global issue that has dangerous side effects. The need to bleach is rooted in colorism, which is prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone, the belief that whiter skin grants one better outcomes, and that Whiteness is the beauty ideal.
The Beauty Ideal
Hegemonic feminine beauty standards emphasize features associated with “Eurocentric aesthetics.” These include fair skin, light eyes, long and straight hair, small facial features, and thin bodies. In contrast, features that are associated with an “African aesthetic,” such as darker skin, curvier bodies, short and curly hair, full lips, and wider noses, are considered less attractive and less feminine. When black women’s appearances closely resemble Whiteness and conforms to hegemonic beauty ideals, they are more likely to be judged more favorably. Internalizing hegemonic notions of feminine appearance can lead to women judging themselves harshly against societal norms of beauty as a measure of their own self-worth. This results in poorer self-esteem and quality of life, and leads women to try dangerous products.
In other cultures, the idea that fairer is better plays a huge role. In India, the dark-skinned Dalits, also known as Untouchables, face discrimination and stigmatization. In Asia, dark skin has received the longest and most intense level of all forms of stigma. In the Philippines especially, skin bleaching is an enormous problem, where people are highly taught that lighter skin produces better life outcomes. In Filipino culture there’s often a belief that you’re only beautiful if you have fair skin. Today, about 77% of Nigerians, 27% of Senegalese, and 35% of South African women bleach their skin. In Jordan about 60.7% of women bleach their skin. These numbers are astounding and truly show how ingrained colorism is in daily lives around the globe.
The side effects of skin bleaching are nasty and dangerous. A main side effect from skin whitening creams from outside the U.S. is the risk of mercury poisoning, which causes neurological symptoms that can be irreversible. Other side effects of skin bleaching creams can include skin cancer, dermatitis, steroid acne, exogenous ochronosis (a skin disorder that causes blue-black pigmentation), and Nephrotic syndrome (a kidney disorder). However, people are willing to risk their lives for the chance to be better accepted.
Many brands and corporations have been called out for selling whitening products, and many have since changed the branding of these products. Various sources report that L’Oreal no longer uses words like “whitening” in the product name and description. However, they still sell the same products. In addition, Johnson & Johnson will no longer sell products advertised as dark-spot reducers in Asia and the Middle East, which is where skin bleaching is a huge issue, but still sells them in other places. Other findings reveal that other brands, such as Unilever, Nivia, and Ponds, also still sell these products, even with different language. Just changing the language is not enough; these products need to be banned and discontinued. By keeping these products available, these corporations are saying that they care more about profits than perpetuating racism. Skin bleaching products perpetuate white supremacy ideology. The way people are taught that in order to be beautiful or worthy or accomplished they need to have whiter skin is horrific and upsetting beyond measures.
NOW’s Love Your Body Campaign and What We Can Do
NOW’s Love Your Body Campaign challenges the message that a woman’s value is best measured through her willingness and ability to embody current beauty standards, and in this case, Whiteness. We believe in loving our bodies exactly as they are, and that these messages that the media and society perpetuate about the beauty ideal are unhealthy, unrealistic, and downright racist. The campaign offers action items for teachers, campuses, the general public, including Love Your Body Day. Students can also watch different movies and documentaries about sexism, the history of women, and challenging beauty norms, or they can host forums on women’s health issues. We can put pressure on companies that discriminate, challenge attitudes, and throw away whitening products.
One of the biggest things that we can do to combat racism in skincare is to vote with our dollars! We can spend our money on brands whose practices align with our values and actively avoid supporting brands who are not inclusive and still sell whitening products. We can identify harmful messages, and speak up about it so we can change it. If we continue to educate ourselves and others, we can make better informed decisions.
Lila Mendelsohn, President’s Office Intern