Skin lightening cream is still sold all around the world
When I was young, I was told the story of how my great-grandmother, who raised my grandfather and great-aunt in 20th-century China, insisted that her children could only go outside with an umbrella. She wanted them to protect their fair skin, which was a sign of their wealth and status.
It wasn’t until recently, though, that I learned my great-grandmother’s preference is one that is not only still enforced today, but continues to generate profits for beauty companies. Skin lightening products are still regularly sold by a wide variety of vendors — from Neiman Marcus to Target — and clearly demonstrate how the vestiges of colonial subordination — the racism that lingers in contemporary society — still uniquely harms women of color.
The way eurocentric beauty standards related to skin tone have permeated other cultures is clear today. The most successful Chinese fashion models, like Liu Wen, have fair skin. Nivea recently released an ad for its skin lightening product in Nigeria, which implied women with lighter skin are more attractive and desirable by associating positive attention from men with lighter skin. Only 24.5 percent of spring 2017 fashion campaigns featured nonwhite models at all.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that these skin lightening products are most popular in formerly colonized nations. For example, the Indian fair skin cream industry is worth approximately $450 million. In India, it’s worth noting, fair skin is associated with high marriage eligibility and overall desirability. The association between light skin and power is longstanding, as it stems from the colonial legacy of fair-skinned colonizers’ influence on Eastern cultures. Yet, Western culture is no stranger to this discrimination itself: during times of slavery in the United States, lighter-skinned slaves worked in the household and received more respect from their masters, while darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields.
This racist beauty standard matters because it essentially punishes women of color for not being white. In a society that routinely judges a woman first by her appearance, her otherness, her darkness, it follows that women of color face disproportionate amounts of other types of discrimination: They are more vulnerable to racist and sexist employment practices compared to white women or men of color and also face a wider wage gap, just to name a couple examples. The perpetuation of eurocentric beauty standards contributes to broader forces of misogyny that inhibit women of color’s ability to elevate themselves and live up to their fullest potential.
By 2020 more than half of the children in the United States are expected to be a part of a minority race or ethnic group. Will we continue to tell the majority of future generations that they are too dark, less beautiful, undeserving, and not enough? We need to recognize just how far we still have to go when it comes to fully recognizing women of color. Doing so is imperative, not just for the future of American society, but for that of the whole world.
More articles by Category: Body image and body standards
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