How to sell “self-improvement” through white beauty

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Chinese ad for SHILLS “spot lightening” gel. Also promises an “effective whitening effect”.

Every morning, bar zombie apocalypse or finals week, I have the same beauty routine. I roll out of bed, grab my “brightening” rice water cleansing oil and toothbrush, and shuffle to the bathroom. Soaping up my face with the rice water cleanser has become so ingrained in my muscle memory that I could (and probably do) complete my morning routine in my sleep. I look at my reflection in the mirror, at the sheen of light bubbles that obscure my hyperpigmented acne scars, and think about colorism, the skin-brightening products I use every day, and the overarching beauty norms and racial capital linked with producing whiter skin.

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These advertisements were marketing Sweet George Bleach Cream in the United States around the 1960’s and 70’s.1 They reflect the prevalent beauty standards that uplift whiter skin and used language such as “vanishing” and “brighten cream” instead of “skin bleach”. As Margaret Hunter says, in some countries “‘bleaching’ carries a negative stigma, so products are marketed instead as skin-evening creams, skin-lighteners, skin-brighteners, skin-whiteners, skin-toners, fading creams, or fairness creams”.2 In the ad on the left, the light-skinned woman is being pursued (somewhat creepily) by a man, implying that romantic success comes with lighter skin. In fact, some Sweet George Bleach Cream ads explicitly said “Help yourself to love, romance, and popularity with a pretty brighter-looking skin”. By connecting love, romance, popularity, and prettiness with “brighter” (read: whiter) skin, they also connected the lack of this social (and racial) capital with darker skin. The “free” cream sample is also a marketing strategy that erases class distinctions; by forming the idea of obtaining social capital through this cream, then passing out free creams, the producers are pushing the idea that “self-improvement” is both egalitarian and affordable for all. 

Similar to the ad on the left, the face in the ad on the right is clearly drawn according to Western beauty ideals, with sleek, shiny hair that’s been fashionably bobbed. The nose is slim and straight, the eyes large and thickly lashed. The lips are bright red, full but not “too full”. The complexion is split in half, with the lighter side on the “right” side. Like the Chinese ad shown earlier, only the darker skinned parts of her face have any sign of blemishes or scarring; after shedding the unwanted darker skin, the perfect lighter parts can then emerge, as if out of a transformative cocoon.

This trend in advertising skin lightening products continues today, with how the Asian beauty market has capitalized on skin-lightening products, rebranded as “skin-brightening”, subtly placing whiter skin as the gold standard. Lighter skin in East Asian culture is historically associated with education and upper-class status, therefore linking whiteness and material success together.

Last year, a Thai beauty ad for Snowz, a whitening “dietary supplement pill”, was run by Seoul Secret. In the fifty second ad, Cris Horwang, a pale-skinned Thai actress, says that “Just being white, you will win”. Without the advertised pill, “the whiteness I have invested in, will just vanish,” she says; her facial expression slowly drops while her skin is digitally darkened. The ad faced a storm of criticism in Thailand, as people claimed the ad perpetuated racist beauty ideals. Soon after the widespread backlash, Seoul Secret pulled the ad and put out an “apologetic” statement, saying “What we intended to convey was that self-improvement in terms of personality, appearance, skills, and professionality is crucial.”

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Ironically, while apologizing for the tone-deaf whitening pill ad, Seoul Secret exposed the structural truths underlying the major success of whitening creams, serums, pills, and bleaches around the world. The benefits of light skin, although not the same in different cultures, are still particularly prevalent in countries formerly colonized by Western powers. Margaret Hunter points out that “images of white beauty sell an entire lifestyle imbued with racial meaning. The lifestyle that is communicated through these ads sells whiteness, modernity, sophistication, beauty, power, and wealth”.2 Since lighter or “brighter” skin is a form of racial capital in racist societies where light skin is valued over dark skin, whitening methods are inextricably tied to “self-improvement” and “professionality”.  

When I use my “brightening” skin cleansing oil, I do so because I wish to lighten the multiple dark acne scars around my chin. I don’t wish to lighten the rest of my skin, simply to “even out” my skin tone. But why do I have this obsession with fading or hiding my scars, which are a normal part of me? My actions (reading reviews for skin lightening oil, buying a certain product in the hopes that it will work and “improve” my skin) are contained within and reproduce the complex of power structures that uplifts light skin and Western beauty norms.

As Davis articulates, beauty is “a way to keep women in line, lulling them with the promise of control over at least one part of their lives”3. I might believe that I have purchasing power, but my choices have already been limited by a market creating demand for and supplying white beauty products. Both my attitude towards my “uneven” skin tone and the means of “brightening” it have been graciously provided by colorist, Western beauty standards and neoliberal consumption. Davis repeats that it is “possible to draw upon individualistic discourses of body control….while at the same time knowing that this is not the ‘real’ solution”3. I continue to buy and use “skin-brightening” products, despite knowing that I am reproducing the dominant cultural discourse. I act within the gendered, hierarchical structures of beauty and appearance, taking control of what limited agency I have, and hope for “another kind of freedom–the freedom not to care”.3


1. Cuff, Charlie Brinkhurst. “These Skin-Lightening Adverts Will Make Your Blood Boil”, gal-dem, (blog), April 03, 2016,
2. Hunter, Margaret L. “Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World”, The Journal of Pan African Studies 4, no. 4 (2011): 142-164., 148.
3. Davis, Kathy. “Remaking The She-Devil: A Critical Look At Feminist Approaches To Beauty”, Hypatia 6, no. 2 (1991): 21-43, doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.1991.tb01391.x, 22.


One thought on “How to sell “self-improvement” through white beauty

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  1. On OCS in India, I often came across various advertisements and products for skin bleaching. Within my American context, I never thought of colorism outside of the Black community. As Janis discussed, White skin is a form of social capital dictating possibilities for the person at hand. I would venture to say white, clear skin holds even more social capital. The presence of blemishes, acne scarring, etc., projects the image of someone who does not care enough for themselves. Additionally, earlier in the term we discussed makeup, but the topic of natural makeup is an important intersection. As women, our bodies become the topics of public discourse which leads to ways of self-policing. My skin is hella uneven, and I get self-conscious sometimes. I want my face to be clear, but it’s not. So I’ve just learned to accept myself where I am at.


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