Skin whitening products have been contentious ever since they came into the modern market. The history behind these products is actually quite long, with varied global connotations from Korea to India, raising questions about social hierarchy and race. No matter the country, one of the core historical values associated with skin lightening is a higher station in life—it means you aren’t toiling away outside as an agricultural worker.
These terms don’t translate well to modern English, and some proponents of these products say “whitening” serves as a one-dimensional word that doesn’t capture the idea behind them. Christine Chang, the cofounder of Korean beauty e-commerce site Glow Recipe says that “it doesn’t speak to radiance and luminosity and transcendence, and all these things that these products are supposed to do. It’s not about shade of skin, but about an overall glow.”
Regardless of intent, “whitening” is a problematic word for skin products, and actress/feminist Emma Watson has recently come under fire for starring in a celebrity campaign for Lancôme’s “Blanc Expert” line. Lancôme, owned by L’Oreal, describes the product on its website not as an overall whitening tool, but for “helping to prevent dark spots in the skin, associated with age and exposure to the sun.”
Though it was three years ago (Watson starred in the campaign abroad from 2011 to 2013), people on our side of the hemisphere are now discovering the ads. Online magazine Gal-Dem recently called Watson out on supporting the French company’s abroad-specific line, saying, “there are several well known North American and European companies who sell skin-lightening products in predominately black and Asian markets, but do not market those same products to their domestic customers. They effectively code switch.”
Users on Twitter also picked up on the controversy, calling the products racist.
Even with the campaign years behind Watson and the product appearing to focus on brightening dark spots versus overall skin whitening, it is now serving as a point of dialogue in the wake of increased industry criticism from multiple angles.
I’ve been rooting for Emma Watson since I was a child, but her advocacy of skin bleaching products & the underlying racism is indefensible.— Claire (@ClaireShrugged) March 29, 2016