Because racism is no longer an accepted American value, it’s become much more subtle than it was in years past, making whether something is “racist” or not a subject of heated debate. Complex issues, like the proper way to portray minorities in the media or whether affirmative action is fair, give rise to infuriated parties and the occasional ludicrous accusation (Kwame Kilpatrick, the people of Michigan wanted you out of office because you have a high concentration of douchebag, not melanin.) But these are necessary debates, because racism is alive and well today even in nations that claim to have turned over a new leaf — you just have to look more carefully.
For example, you may not have heard of skin whiteners, but unfortunately they’re exactly what they sound like. With names like Fair and Lovely and Flawless White, these creams claim to make darker complexions lighter and “lovelier.” They are all the rage among young women in places like India, China and Malaysia.
At first glance, the popularity of skin whiteners in Asian countries doesn’t seem at all subtle, just infuriating. But the root of their popularity is more complex than it at first appears, and reveals an important lesson about standards of beauty in the West as well. In fact, it’s part of a big problem affecting not only dark-skinned people, but women everywhere.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at an Indian commercial for the Fair and Lovely whitening cream. In it, a dark-skinned daughter and father wearing traditional Indian garb enter a beauty shop. However, the pale sales clerk smiles condescendingly and informs the poor girl that this is a “modern beauty store.” She’s understandably heartbroken, at least until Daddy steps in and procures … Fair and Lovely! Our heroine’s elation at this development confused me, because if my father flat-out told me that I wasn’t as pretty as some bitch in Sephora’s, my reaction would be to pour the damn face bleach into his eyes until he bought me no fewer than seven ponies by way of apology.
Yet what makes this commercial disturbing is not only that it implies dark skin isn’t attractive, but that it’s somehow primitive. As soon as Bleach-ella gets her face whitewashed, she’s wearing European clothes and flirting with a European-looking man. So the commercial takes on an even more offensive dimension: Everyone wants to be like those super cool white people, because they’re somehow better.
Though it’s an easy conclusion to come to, there’s more beneath the surface. The history of skin whiteners reaches back long before Europeans arrived in Asia; they’ve been popular in cultures the world over for millennia, from Ancient Rome to feudal Japan. Historically, the poor had to toil under the sun, while the rich spent their days indoors. Thus, pale skin was considered beautiful because it was a symbol of wealth and status. Does this mean that Asia’s infatuation with skin whiteners is nothing more offensive than the West’s preoccupation with tanning booths?
No, because while it may not be based on Eurocentricism, it still creates a standard of beauty along a class divide. In India to this day, people with naturally darker skin are often marginalized to the “lower” classes and kept out of the spotlight. The standard of pale beauty that was once used to identify the lower and upper classes now defines them.
It’s hard to say if similar class divides are formed like this in the United States, but we have more in common with Asia here than we might care to admit. We, too, have a very specific definition of “perfect beauty” presented by the media and advertising, and it looks like Barbie on a starvation diet. Looking at Seventeen magazine’s covers from 2006, 11 of those had a white model, of which nine were blonde, seven with blue eyes on top. In 2007, it didn’t get much better; 10 out of 12 models were white, seven of which were blue-eyed blondes. This Paris Hilton style of beauty is promoted everywhere, from make-up ads to pornography, and even models of color try to approximate it with lightish skin, small noses and straight hair.
In places where dark-skinned people are marginalized, skin whiteners definitely contribute to racism. But even in places with relative racial homogeneity, they’re not just offensive to dark-skinned people but to women everywhere. Like American advertising’s obsession with the Aryan Princess, they purport that you’re incapable of being beautiful if you don’t have a very specific set of characteristics, but I’ve yet to meet a man who refuses to date anyone who isn’t a strawberry blonde white girl between 5’8¼” and 5’9½”. Real people know beauty comes in a variety of flavors, and it’s time popular culture realizes it, too.
So ladies, look in the mirror and smile. You’re a hottie.
Eileen Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.