Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Cultural Beauty Trends || Skin Whitening: Racism, Class Warfare, WHAT? || Rivet Licker

I have been putting off this post for a while because of its sensitive nature, and I respectfully want to open the discussion. We've come to see different world views on the beauty industry because of the mainstream boom in Asian beauty trends. We were once pretty much sold an ideal created in Europe, but now we are finding ourselves immersed in different standards of beauty from around the world, but unfortunately, they're still very limited (as standards usually are). Black and brown skin still needs pride movements and representation; tanned skin is accepted and desired; but light skin is still the winner in some parts of the world.

Where does skin whitening stem from?


Before I go on, I would like to acknowledge that I am speaking from a position of privilege, because I am a white passing person (of a non-white ethnic group) that has not been discriminated against or denied opportunity solely based on the colour of my skin. I acknowledge that the experiences of PoC are vastly different from mine, and my input on the matter is merely an amplification for the voices of those people who this affects.


We've seen this '50 Shades of Beige' thing with makeup. When Rihanna launched Fenty Beauty*, I honestly thought that it was going to be a line designed exclusively for darker skin tones, because of the mainstream market gap in colour cosmetics. I actually would have fully supported this model, but was surprised to learn that my skin tone would be catered to as well. This was a game changer, because no other brands had done this from the get go (because usually brands need to be begged to extend colour cosmetic ranges). The team knew this needed to happen, and they changed everything, and we all heard about it. We talked about it.

What don't seem to hear about much is the beauty trend of white skin and skin whitening products. This is not a white people being white people thing either, so let's talk about it.

It's 2018, and we are still having to promote the beauty of black and brown folx everywhere because they've been missing out on being represented in an industry that still wants to demand that light skin is more beautiful, but simultaneously not want very pale skin to be the focal point either. There's also the whole skin shaming thing going on (ageing, wrinkles, pores, acne etc), but that was covered in another story. 'Fair skin' is the goal of this cultural paradigm. In fact, the term 'fair' already implies that light skin is more beautiful – this is something that was brought to my attention recently when I used 'fair' to describe my pale complexion.

Whitening skin has been advertised widely throughout South East and South Asia, including with some very racist and sexist notions. Here are some bizarre news stories people sent me:

'Racist' Thailand skin-whitening advert is withdrawn

These skin-lightening commercials will infuriate you (and should shame India’s ad industry)

The fairer sex? Indian company launches an intimate wash designed to 'brighten' the vagina

Indian women are being sold the idea that if they have lighter skin, they would be more desirable and beautiful to their husbands (and that includes intimate areas which are usually darker than surrounding skin). The same is happening in Thailand (where there are HUGE billboards everywhere), China, South Korea, the list goes on. South Korea is a major cosmetics player in the East, and its influences are spreading rapidly throughout Asia, but also into the Americas, Europe, and Oceania.

Actual description found on a skin cleanser where marketing was targeted at Asian consumers.

Women in China are really into whitening skincare to keep their complexions light, and the demand is particularly high for brands from Australia and New Zealand. A lot of brands wind up selling through B2B and eCommerce platforms (T-Mall) to avoid animal testing and other difficulties with entering the Chinese market.

But IS IT about race?


I asked the opinion of a few friends and fellow bloggers from various cultural backgrounds, and was given feedback as such:


+S is of Filipino Chinese background. They mentioned that people wanted to be seen as a different social class, or "exotic" due to the fetishism of Western culture. They also said that it is up to the user if they want to do it.

+T is of Chinese Singaporean background. They are very against this culture, stating that the products are expensive, and thus marketed towards the wealthy; and that their mother uses the products. They stated that seeing advertisements for the products in China and Thailand depicting black people as being "dirty" and emerging with whitened skin. The industry rakes in millions through not only products, but whitening clinics, and gives another unhealthy and unrealistic beauty ideal to women (more so than men). They believe it is super gross that they market these products to mean that white skin is more beautiful and or richer. T also mentioned that they thought it was a silly idea that "pale skin = not a peasant", due to some people being born with light skin, such as their father, who is from Shanghai, an area of China noted for lighter skin tones.

+M is of Chinese background. They state that in some cultures and places, it's problematic, but it's also presumptuous when people say that it's just Asians hating themselves and wanting to be white. They also mentioned the problems of colourism in the Black community of the US and that there are also very toxic skin bleaching treatments in some African countries where very little regulations exist. The use of high doses of hydroquinone and heavy metals to lighten skin is a huge issue. One more point brought up was that it is a classist notion, but went to state that so is fake tan, as it suggested in the West, that tanned skin is wealth – people who can afford to go on holidays. In the East, light skin means wealth because rich people aren't labourers.

+Deena is of Afro-Latinx background and a KBeauty enthusiast. They stated that while they don't speak for all PoC, they dislike the misleading labels of whitening because they are meant to brighten complexion rather than bleach skin, although the inherent ideals of White Supremacy and White washing in Asian and Western societies. D also mentioned that there is a problem with whitening products that do bleach skin, and their use is not condoned by them.
Check out Deena's Instagram for KBeauty!

+B is of White background, but was married to a person of Indian decent and they have children together. They mentioned that they saw their mother-in-law using products to lighten her skin. They were unaware of the history behind the trend, but they imagine that colonialism may have had something to do with it, but it also a result of North Indian people with lighter skin being part of the ruling class and the caste system probably didn't help. B also mentioned the advertising towards wives, and women wanting lighter skin. All in all, they believe it is a real shame.

+H is of Bangladeshi background. They wrote:
"A cultural fondness for Fair skin in Asian countries has more to do with class than conventional beauty. In AsiaVille Men and women alike believe whiteness is enough to ‘show class’, like a Rolex watch does. Oriental women are conditioned to believe their fair skin is enough to keep a husband satisfied." [sic]

+M is of Malian background. They said that unfortunately it is a very popular trend in developing countries, especially in African countries and regions in the Caribbean such as Jamaica and Haiti. Living in the US, they mentioned that they don't see it anymore, but have tried to use them in the past. They stated it wasn't a healthy practice and there were lots of side effects.



I personally think this is quite asinine, but it's not my culture to decide. I am glad that people are giving me this information from their personal standpoints. Overall, it appears to be more of a class motivated trend than solely a race thing, but there's absolutely no cause for the shaming of dark skin. I do not agree with notions stating that dark skin is 'not beautiful", or that it's dirty, or even means you're poor, etc. Dark skin has been a scapegoat for prejudice and justification of genocide for too long. So all in all, I'm angry that this is still happening in 2018.

In my Western nook, I am told that my skin is too light (not even kidding), where it is suggested that I am anemic, so there are the ableist notions too. The beauty industry in itself is classist, but that's just a product of capitalism. Plenty more to talk about on that later!


In conclusion, the Western world has had its fair share of problematic behaviours, mostly ruling down to colonialism, imperialism and nationalism; which have bred genocide, slavery, and general racism, but this is happening outside of our US and Euro-centric world model.

I still want to open the dialogue, and to hear the thoughts of my readers, especially if you are a person of colour, or of Asian ethnicity. Please get in touch with me via the comments, social media, or email.

This post is presented as an opinion piece. For more information, please read my Disclosure Policy.


  1. Interesting read. I guess from my perspective. Being an alt PoC. I never felt I was beautiful or Goth enough because of my skin tone. I would love to see more "brown" Goths. As far as my experience goes, skin bleach doesn't work anyway and my own hangups are very likely a result of misrepresentation in western TV and other family members that are also PoC saying: "if you're half white, why are you so dark?" ��

    1. LOL @ that last statement. I think people tend to forget genes that code for dark traits tend to be dominant (but not always), hence dark skin, dark eyes etc, even if one of your parents is white.

      The alt scene is so whitewashed that it hurts. Never realised that in the past, but it is. We've also appropriated so many cultural styles as means of playing it off as counter-culture, but it still hurts communities when they cannot wear their own style without being discriminated, fetishised, arrested, or worse yet, killed, while the white alternative people still carry on and complain that they're the oppressed group because someone called them an emo.

  2. Lol @ emo. So true though.

    1. That's not to say alternative people don't get bullied or beaten up (or killed, as in the tragic case of Sophie Lancaster), but it's not racially motivated such as the violence a person of colour would experience just existing.

  3. An interesting post Lara & one I think should be read by people of all races & skin types.

    Being pale AF (as you know), I've experienced both sides of the coin. I have had people tell me to "get a tan" before because I look like I was "born at the Liquid Paper factory". (A legit shit-stirring question asked by one of my HS classmates - rather ironic given that he too was pale like me - I can laugh about it now, but still!) I've never fake tanned & probably never will, but I don't like feeling like I HAVE TO once the warmer months come around & all the articles/blog posts/general media start talking about how to achieve a fake tan etc. I'd rather embrace what I have tyvm. (And also because I cba with all that stuff either. Too scared I'll turn out orange.)

    On the flipside, I have had some stares from Asian & Indian people whilst out & about & I often wonder whether it's because they covet my skin colour due to cultural conditioning, or whether it's because they've just never seen someone like me before & I'm somehow "exotic" or of a higher class. I really wish I could tell these people that having fairer skin is NOT an ideal one should aspire to, because IME it leaves you open to developing skin cancers.

    I also think it's ridiculous that people are still being sold the notion of "light skin = beautiful/desireable/high class/etc". There are plenty of GORGEOUS women of all different colours out there & that needs to be embraced a lot more. I'm glad to see there are SOME changes beginning to happen within the beauty industry, but we still have a hella long way to go in that regard.