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Asian beauty — against a White beauty standard

Deeper shades remain subjected to a racialised market.

“Pond’s White beauty – pale white or pinkish white, you choose.”

Those are the closing words of Pond’s 2007 advertising campaign for its White Beauty line, featuring household Bollywood names such as Priyanka Chopra, Neha Dhupia, and Saif Ali Khan.

The campaign incurred significant backlash on social media, sparked by the death of George Floyd and global protests against racism, and , forcing the conglomerate to rebrand its ‘Fair and Lovely’ moisturiser to ‘Glow and Lovely.’ In the same month, Johnson & Johnson similarly released a statement regarding its Neutrogena and Clean & Clear offerings across Asia.

“[S]ome product names or claims on our Neutrogena and Clean & Clear dark-spot reducer products represent fairness or white as better than your own unique skin tone,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement to BBC News at the time. “This was never our intention – healthy skin is beautiful skin.”

Subsequently, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare made amendments to advertising regulations to prohibit promotions of fairness or skin tone alterations in Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Amendment Bill 2020.
Such systemic racism, however, is by no means limited to Pond’s or Neutrogena but is especially prevalent in the cosmetics industry more broadly. Foundation shades consistently fail to account for darker shades — for instance, Dior’s Forever Skin Glow foundation stops at shade no. 3.5N in Hong Kong, a light medium-tan shade, whereas in Australia, the brand caters up to 9N – a beautifully deep mahogany colour.

Indeed, in 2018, an informal survey by Glamour Magazine found that 80% of women struggled to find their colour match. Similarly, Nielsen’s annual reports noted that African-American consumers spent $7.5 billion on beauty products of which 80% were invested in brands that specifically sell products targeting darker women.
Thus, the words on Unilever’s Fair & Lovely are a tragically modern representation of the pervasiveness of a Eurocentric beauty standard across Asia. The incentives behind such representations are both social and practical. Indeed, a paper titled Beautiful White: an illumination of Asian skin-whitening culture, Elysia Pan writes about the connection between a porcelain complexion and class concerns: “The ruling class stayed indoors conducting business and enjoying leisure, and thus was less exposed to the sun’s darkening rays.”

“This Chinese projection onto the pale-skinned outsiders who came to visit their country is a type of curious Occidentalism where Western bodies were fetishized.”

Such attitudes, however, were not limited to the 20th century advent of an industrialised beauty industry. In the 15th century, a poem called ‘Khúc hát hái sen’ (Lotus-gathering song) by Ngo Chi Lan, a noted Vietnamese feudal court poet, captured the popular fervour for fairness:

Lotus perfume wafts near and far,
How bucolic the girl among the abundant flowers,
Her hair beautiful in the breeze,
Her snowy skin emitting its own alluring fragrance.

Evoking serene imagery, Ngo mythologises the white, fair to conjure an ideal Vietnamese female body. Ngo’s poem encapsulates the elite idealism of countless generations of not only Vietnamese but Asian women. A customary saying in Chinese “—白遮百丑,” which translates to “one white can cover up a hundred kinds of ugliness” — associates fairness with moral rectitude and consolidates the disdain for darker complexions. All of this necessitates a concerted shift away from Eurocentric beauty standards across Asia and globally.

But Eurocentrism, in this context, refers equally to mythologisation of both the white as well as the bronze. In 1923, Coco Chanel took ownership of the ‘accidental sunburn.’ Then, across the West, sunbathing became the norm, commonly associated with wealth. Physical exercise and the outdoors inextricably linked to a lack of financial worries from the 1950s onwards – think Cannes or Love Island.

Hence, these white and bronze mythologies paradoxically comprise two opposing, yet fundamentally flawed ideals. Both are rooted in a casualised condescension towards working women, both promising an assurance of exclusivity, elitism and superiority above all others.

Fairness, however, represents a particularly racist detachment from one’s reality because it offers an illusory promise of change to one’s complexion. The promises of products such as Pond’s Fair & Lovely cream induces a hopeless pursuit of status. At worst, fair mythology has been responsible for lasting damages such as Kanebo’s use of Rhododenol in 2013 – a quasi-drug ingredient – in the company’s whitening skincare range, causing users to suffer leukoderma. Furthermore, in the context of Asia, fair condescension disproportionately affects those working in rural settings across Southeast Asia, being exposed more routinely to the outdoors than others.
This sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated in Madeleine Marsh’s narration on the history of beauty:

“If you’ve got a touch of sunburn or heaven forfend, a freckle – you were a member of the working class.”

Although the past two decades has witnessed the emergence of makeup owned and curated by black women such as Pat McGrath Labs or blackIUp leading a transformation away from the pale facade of beauty, these names are prohibitively expensive. McGrath’s Skin Fetish foundation alone costing $100 for one bottle. Without systemic pressure against the beauty world’s implicit disdain for working-class women and men, deeper shades will remain subjected to a racialised market that determines the availability of foundation shades according to demographics and an illusory fair mythology. Tan, mahogany, and black skin must be respected for the humanity that these colours embody, rather than taken as to elevate one all others.

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