Even with all the controversy surrounding them, it seems like skin “whitening” products aren’t going anywhere soon, reports Refinery 29. Global Industry Analysts predicts that the whitening industry will be worth some $20 billion by 2018. And from that $20 billion, plenty of people are getting paid.
At first glance, one such person appears to be actress Emma Watson — a feminist who has spoken out in favor of gender and racial equality. Online magazine Gal-Dem recently pointed out that Watson was the face of Lancôme’s “Blanc Expert” line abroad, reportedly from 2011 to 2013. Though Watson’s campaign is three years old and appears to be more focused on brightening dark spots as opposed to overall skin bleaching, it has prompted an online dialogue with users.
Many on Twitter and Instagram are calling out the actress for supporting an industry that is “designed to make us feel like our skin is a problem that we can pay for them to solve,” Gal-Dem’s Naomi Mabita writes.
Skin lightening is common throughout the world, but with decidedly different origins depending on where you live, according to sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn, PhD, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the editor of Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. “In the case of the Far East, in countries like Japan, Korea, and China, it doesn’t have to do with trying not to be Asian,” Dr. Glenn explains. “In those cultures, there’s a long tradition for women of light skin to be equated with beauty, and also there’s a class element. [It means] you’re not working in the sun, which is an important [distinction] in an agricultural society.”
Another article by Refinery 29 reports that the English word “whitening” doesn’t drive home the right message. Christine Chang, who has 10 years of experience working for global beauty brands, is the cofounder of Korean beauty e-commerce site Glow Recipe. “It’s such a one-dimensional word. It doesn’t speak to radiance and luminosity and transcendence, and all these things that these products are supposed to do,” Chang says. “It’s not about shade of skin, but about an overall glow.” (Dr. Glenn recalls seeing a Japanese ad that likened perfect skin to that of a peeled, hard-boiled egg.) This study, which ascertained that skin-whitening ads in Asia can help perpetuate prejudice against darker skin tones, also posits that many Asian women use them to get rid of dark spots and even their skin tone, and not totally lighten their complexions. (This is different in South Asian countries like India, though, where they’re blatantly sold for the purpose of getting lighter skin.)