by Kyungyeon Chung
Upon walking into a drug store in Japan, one will find an array of cosmetic products that promises hopeful transformation into what today’s Japanese society perceives as beauty. These end results the products promise – fairer, whiter skin, brighter teeth, bigger eyes, and longer eye lashes – all embodying the ideal that originated from the Western, Caucasian-centric beauty standards.
The cosmetics industry, even on a global scale, operates on the platform provided by Western standards of beauty, and especially by the colorism ideology that has penetrated into deep corners of modern society. At the same time, the beauty ideal and colorism are not self-sustaining. Their presence and growing prevalence are made possible by numerous industries that profit from the growth, with the cosmetic industry being a major stakeholder in play. By constantly being made to consume products designed with a limited set of objectives and outcome, the consumers are constantly reminded of the beauty ideals behind the products. The global cosmetics industry and the Western beauty standards based on colorism, mutually reinforce each other’s existence and influence.
In order to fully understand the core of modern society’s beauty standards, it is imperative to know the colorism ideology that frames the entire discourse. Colorism refers to “the preference for lighter skin and social hierarchy based on skin tone”, and has been widely expanding throughout the globe (Glenn, 2009, p.166). Being one of the main axes behind inequality today, it occurs at societal, systemic level through social structure that permits systematic discrimination towards darker skinned people. In many different regions and nations around the world, light skin tone has historically been preferred to dark skin tone, and given higher social status and easier access to social and economic resources (Keith, 2009, p.25). Although the beauty ideal does include other phenotypic aspects than skin complexion such as desirable weight, body shape, and facial structures, skin tone does hold significant importance, if not the most.
This ideology of colorism has been directly translated into the Western beauty ideals. Up high on the list of what composes the ideals is ‘fair’ skin. Having lighter, fairer, and whiter skin gives a great advantage in one’s life, and is central to the very definition of beauty. Having been spread as part of the ideological rationale for slavery and colonial imperialism of the European powers (Keith, 2009, p.27), the “white is better” or “white is right” idea still pervades modern societies thanks to mass media. Today, these ideologies are strongly embedded in ways we admire, desire, and look upon fair skin. Its importance can be easily understood and highlighted by the popular practice of skin whitening, which will be elaborated further later. It is also important to note here that females are subjected to these standards much more frequently and strictly than males (Keith, 2009).
In modern societies with capitalist economic system, the beauty standards manifest themselves as profitable industries whose products promise the achievement of ideal beauty via consumption. As societies are deeply instilled with consumerism, selling and buying beauty have been a huge, popularly sought-after business than ever. Plastic surgery is one of the most common and provocative examples. Cosmetic surgeries have spiked up in number and scale around the world: 14 million surgery procedures were performed in the US in 2011 (American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2012); close to 7% of the population has undergone knife in South Korea in 2010 (Bates, 2013). A wide range diet-support programs, machines, and food products are readily available to help people lose weight.
Among many industries that thrive on our search for beauty, the cosmetics industry deserves particular attention. For instance, unlike plastic surgery, which may seem invasive, dangerous and rather extreme, putting on makeup is seldom-questioned practice for women. While showing up at school after a holiday with larger breasts may cause a stir, putting on mascara would hardly be an issue. For many, it is a daily routine, an ordinary and even expected behavior. It is also continuous – women who use skin care products will probably continue to do so for years to come. While it may seem trivial at first, considering the commonality and regularity of skin care and makeup, the cosmetics industry is massive, universally pervasive, and commercially successful.
The cosmetics industry owes much of its existence and enduring popularity to the beauty standards. An impressive array of products is available to help people achieve beauty as prescribed by the Western ideal. Eye makeup products are a great example. A dozen different types of products are readily available to make one’s eyes look bigger and more defined: mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyelash curler, eyebrow shaper, highlighter, etc. In East Asia in particular, the desire to have the Western look has also led to the popularity of double eyelid (Bates, 2013). In Korean and Japanese cosmetics shops, one can easily find glue or sticker-like products that hold the skin of upper eyelid together, creating an illusive double-lid. For those unwilling to undergo surgical procedures to create double eyelids, those products are a way to go.
Yet, the segment within the cosmetics industry that is perhaps the most influenced by, shaped by, and reflective of the Western ideals, is skin whitening products. Colorism has effectively produced a social view that associates whiteness with superiority and darkness with primitiveness, something to be avoided and fixed. In her book Shades of Differences, Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues that light skin has come to hold symbolic capital that furthers one’s life chances (2009, p. 166). This relates to the concept of beauty queue in society, whereby the level of beauty and social status are judged by the shades of complexion, the lightest at the top and the darkest at the bottom. For such reason, men and women from all parts of the world have strived for lighter complexion by consuming copious amounts of skin whitening products, supporting a multibillion-dollar global industry.
In the Asia Pacific region, the skin lightening market was valued at over US$13 billion in 2012 (Tan, 2012). In African continent, studies have found that up to 50% of population use skin lightening products in Dakar, Senegal; and even up to 77% in Lagos, Nigeria (Ntambwe, 2004). Almost all major cosmetic brands have a product line specifically dedicated to brightening care: Estée Lauder’s ‘CyberWhite’, Shiseido’s ‘White Lucent’, Clarins’s ‘Bright Plus’, Vichy’s ‘BiWhite’, Chanel’s ‘Le Blanc’. The list is endless. The prevalence and magnitude of the industry indicate how the widespread Western ideal of beauty and reverence for lighter skin tone has led to increasing demand for skin whitening products. The unabated expansion of the skin whitening products is a clear manifestation of colorism in action.
The highly interrelated relationship between the cosmetics industry and the Western beauty ideal can also be traced back from the other way around. The cosmetics industry work to constantly and persistently reinforce the ideal into the mindset of people, making it into an accepted social norm. Commercials by cosmetic firms continuously remind the consumers of what they should look like, and thus eventually what they should consume in order to achieve the said goals. These commercials tactically employ models that will spark the feeling of desire, which make the viewers think the goal – of looking like the model – is attainable. In essence, the models will look Caucasian enough to fit the White beauty standard, yet still possess enough ‘local’ features not to alienate the viewers too much. For instance, in Japan, half-Japanese and half-Caucasian models have rose to prominence for such reasons, brining the ‘ha-fu boom’ in entertainment and media (Krieger, 2010). In such manner, the constant bombardment of strategically produced advertisements on TV, magazines, and in shops, works to ensure the beauty ideal is here to stay.
As seen in the case of skin whitening products, the industry ushers consumers to fix their blemishes and dark spots, to get rid of undesirable features, and to become closer to the ideal beauty. Prominent cosmetic manufactures reveal supposedly bettered, new products every season. The products are ‘upgraded’ in a sense that they claim to produce better results, such as longer eyelashes, darker eye lines, more durability, brighter effects, to name a few. Consumers absorb such ideas: those results are good; those results are better; those results are what they should seek after. Through this process, the beauty standard gets repeatedly ingrained in the subconscious of society as a whole.
There is a wide range of factors at play that help maintain the global obsession with the White ideal of beauty, and especially that of light skin tone. One of the perpetuators is the cosmetics industry. In modern capitalist economy in which consumerism has become the social norm, the cosmetics industry prospers, thanks to the consumers’ ceaseless quest for beauty as dictated by the Western ideal. The quest for fairer skin, in particular, embodies the reality of colorstruck world – to borrow Verna Keith’s words – where colorism is firmly established as part of social structure.
The cosmetics industry and the White beauty ideals function as lifeline to each other. The ideals condition society for the industry to profit from, while the industry works to reinforce the ideals. It is a mutually interdependent, symbiotic relationship. If we want to start tackling the racially charged foundation behind the White ideal of beauty, we must first understand how it is perpetuated and internalized by consumption of products that cement the said ideal. Only when both ends are understood and questioned, can the process of deconstructing the colorstruck world begin.
- American Society of Plastic Surgeons (2012, September 2). 13.8 million cosmetic plastic surgery procedures performed in 2011. Retrieved from: http://www.plasticsurgery.org/News-and-Resources/Press-Release-Archives/2012-Press-Release-Archives/138-Million-Cosmetic-Plastic-Surgery-Procedures-Performed-in-2011.html
- Bates, C. (2013, January 31). 15 million people worldwide had plastic surgery in 2011. Daily Mail Online. Retrieved from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2271134/15million-people-plastic-surgery-world-just-year–SOUTH-KOREA-leading-way.html
- Glenn, E. N. (2009). Consuming lightness. In Glenn, E. N. (Ed.), Shades of difference: Why skin color matters. (pp. 166-187). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Keith, V. (2009). A colorstruck world. In Glenn, E. N. (Ed.), Shades of difference: Why skin color matters. (pp. 25-39). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Krieger, D. (2010, November 29). The whole story on being ‘hafu’. CNN. Retrieved from: http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/whole-story-being-hafu-722376
- Ntambwe, M. (2004, March). Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Science in Africa. Retrieved from: http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2004/march/skinlightening.htm
- Tan, D. (2012, September 18). Who’s the fairest of them all? Asian Scientist. Retrieved from: http://www.asianscientist.com/features/skin-whitening-products-asia-2012/