The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Why Skin Whitening Cream Is A Crime Against Humanity …
March 27, 2014, 6:10 am
Filed under: Comment

For years, I have stated that one of the things that deeply bothers me about Asia is the prevalence of skin whitening creams.

I hate them.

I hate them for the reason why women feel they must use them.

I hate them for the reason why companies make them.

I hate them for the negative message it continues to promote to hundreds of millions of women throughout Asia.

You see in this part of the World having white skin is more than just about ‘a look’.

It’s not like in the West, where – ironically – tanned skin conveys health and wealth.

Here, the implications are far more, far reaching.

You see in Asia, there is the belief that darker looking skin means you come from a heritage of working in the fields.

The poor.

The lower-class.

The workers.

And there is the belief that if you don’t take action against it, it could have huge implications on how your life – and how your future families life – could turn out.

Now I appreciate you may think this is ridiculous and people should just get over it, but in a culture where myth and legend dictate so much, these are exactly the sort of beliefs that undermine confidence and hope.

And this is why all these skin care companies have jumped on this issue.

Rather than fight against it, they love keeping the women of Asia in their cultural jail.

Hell, even Dove – the brand that talks about being happy with who you are – are in on the act.

I remember at an awards judging last year, I had a major row with a senior Unilever marketer [a male] and their agency MD [also a mle] about this very issue and apart from denying Dove had any skin whitening product [which they do, as you can see here, not to mention the countless other skin whitening products Unilever produce as you can learn more about here] they tried to mock me for my my ‘exaggerated’ concerns.

Of course I understand that if they admitted to it, they would have to accept responsibility for it and no corporate toady employee is going to do that so I simply left them with the message that they either don’t give a shit about women – which must be terrible if they have a daughter – or they’re simply incredibly ignorant about what is really going on in this part of the World and they should fire their research agency immediately.

I’ve been desperate to work with a cosmetic brand ever since I got to this part of the World so I could encourage them to take the issue on, but alas, the opportunity hasn’t arisen for me yet … so instead, I would love anyone who works with a client or agency that makes or promotes skin whitening products to sit them down, show them this video and ask them to think about what they they’ve done.

Every day they have the chance to release women from their cultural prison cell.

Every day they choose profit over their soul.

Shame on them.

43 Comments so far
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It’s a worldwide issue – you can buy that stuff and worse in London.

Comment by John

With respect John, it isn’t the same. You are right these products exist around the World but the consequences of having darker skin for women in Asia is much more culturally significant and destabilising. I don’t mean to trivialise the impact skin tone has on women from Western backgrounds, but when I lived there, I saw the implications and beliefs extended to the whole population across all generations.

Comment by Pete

I think what John is saying is that companies have been, and continue to, profit from undermining women’s confidence around the World. He’s right but it appears the way they do it in Asia is by exploiting a more broadly felt cultural view, resulting in women being impacted and influenced far more than just media stereotyping.

Comment by Mary Bryant

I’m not sure what you mean by Western backgrounds and I accept that it may be affect a far smaller proportion of the total population than is the case in Asia, but the cultural issues are the same. They have crossed geographical boundaries.

Comment by John

What I’m talking about is the sale of whitening products to women of Asian and African heritage and the “worse” to which I referred was products with banned ingredients. Available in London and, no doubt, throughtout the country.

Comment by John

Then we can start talking about the crap companies put in the food they serve us. It’s all shit but we all want low prices.

Comment by DH

Before anyone shouts at me, the low price comment was about food, not the skin colour debate going on. That’s a whole different can of shit altogether.

Comment by DH

Fair point John. I meant people who had an upbringing that was heavily influenced by Western standards and contexts. As I said, I am not disagreeing that this situation affects women throughout the World nor am I disagreeing that companies should be accountable for the ingredients they place in their products, I just felt your original comment generalised the situation and my experience living in Asia made me realise that is not the case.

Comment by Pete

When I first read your comment John, I was going to respond in a similar way to Pete.

Yes, the issue is worldwide, but the cultural significance for women in Asia and Africa is – I would argue – far deeper and greater than those raised in first World countries with Western values.

That’s not to say people there are immune from this sort of thing, but when this view has been pushed for thousands of years, the impact is even more detrimental to a woman’s confidence and potential.

Of course skin whitening firms will say they are simply ‘helping women leave these issues behind’ … and maybe that was why it was started … but if you see the ads on television in this part of the World, you know that is no longer the case and they are just trading on cultural misery.

Comment by Rob

I may be wrong, but I get the impression that my comment was interpreted as in some way downplaying the issue – I categorically wasn’t. Was simply making the point that it has spread across the world.

Not everybody lives in the country in which they were born or are raised by families who share the values of that new country.

Comment by John

It did come across that way to me [and seemingly Pete] but I appreciate that’s not what you intended, it’s just the problem of reading comments on a blog.

And you’re right, not everyone lives in the country they were born or are raised with the values of that country, but I’d say the majority still do – especially in China – where just working/traveling outside your home city can be met with governmental obstacles.

Comment by Rob

Powerful stuff Rob. Well written and well said.

Comment by Pete

Don’t get me started on how your industry helps perpetuate the myths of inadequacy. It is outrageous how the beauty industry promote themselves. They are not about empowering women but undermining.

Hearing how this viewpoint has existed in Asia for thousands of years makes me very sad, but hearing there are companies doing it who claim to they want to free women from this tyranny makes me very angry.

I will be showing that video to my girls, it’s very powerful and emotional. Thank you for writing this post Robert.

Comment by Mary Bryant

Yes, yes, yes.

Comment by Jemma King

That’s the thing Mary … while modern marketing may have originated in the US, this view has been established here for thousands of years and so the significance is both deep and broad and extends far beyond just media stereotyping.

As I said in my comment above, this is not to dismiss what women in Western first World countries have to face, it’s just that the implications here are far more all encompassing.

Comment by Rob

you know youve hit a nerve when mary launches into comment blitzkrieg.

Comment by andy@cynic


Comment by DH

i know fuck all about this shit but if it could fuck up my daughter, i want to fuck up the pricks behind it.

Comment by andy@cynic

In some ways, that’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard you say.

Comment by DH

I agree David. I also agree with Andrew’s view, and of course my wifes. Anyone that can undermine my daughters confidence in themselves will become my #1 enemy.

Comment by George

Yep, fatherhood managed to even change Andy.

Comment by Rob

P&G make these products as well Robert. I know you don’t do work for those products directly, but could you not talk to the people you do deal with about this issue? That said, P&G people are some of the most “company men” types I’ve ever encountered so no doubt all you would get is a nod, a patronising smile and no action.

Comment by George

Yes they do and while I don’t work with any of their product people, I have mentioned it numerous times to other people within the organisation but sadly I have not had a satisfactory response … though I do appreciate that doesn’t mean they are in the wrong, they may just have a different perspective on the product [ie: they are helping women not be held down by skin tone prejudice as opposed to keeping them in that cultural prison]

Comment by Rob

Is it me or is it weird the whitest man in the World has written this?

Comment by Billy Whizz

The point you might be making is that with all the exposure Sheryl Sandberg and Beyonce’s “Bossy to Boss” campaign is being given, they have the platform to raise this issue and drive greater awareness and response.

Comment by George

That’s a great point George.

I don’t know where I stand with the whole Bossy/Boss thing. Of course I am for changing any stereotype that undermines people’s confidence, but I can’t help but feel this campaign is not addressing the causes of this view and simply telling people to stop thinking that way.

I’m not sure how effective that will be, even though I wish them luck with it … however if they were to lend their weight against issues that were undermining female confidence – such as skin whitening products – I think it would be amazing, though sadly I am not sure whether the commercial side of them would let them do that.

Comment by Rob

It is weird. I am under no illusion that having a white, bald, Nottingham bloke say this can come across as patronising or even sexist. But my intentions are honourable and I hope that comes across in the post.

Comment by Rob

It is good you write about this Robert. You care and that comes through. Mary says it best, this affects all women but there it starts earlier because its in the heritage.

Comment by Katerina

Hello K, great to hear from you. That’s a good way to articulate it … though I’d add the issue isn’t just felt from a very early age, it’s actively ‘supported’ by society, not just media as well.

Comment by Rob

This is very admirable but companies have made money from exploiting people since time began so it shouldn’t be a surprise, however wrong it may be.

Comment by Wayne Green

Interesting comments on appearance, dark vs. light. Having grown up since the mid 80’s into the 90’s as a child, I saw more of the “whiter” Michael Jackson, saw his release of the Black or White music video and whatnot. I’m wondering how he would fit into the whole message you’re sharing here? I know it was admitted on Oprah that he had a skin condition that altered his color, but there were stories of him using skin whitner as well. I always thought his intent was that the appearance of a person wasn’t important, that a person could remain the same regardless. That being said, one could argue that he did not remain the same, but changed quite a bit as the years went on. But ultimately, I always saw him as a kind and compassionate man who only wanted to help the world, albeit he came across as odd or eccentric many times. He was also probably the most followed individual in the history of humanity, or at least one of the most followed.

Comment by magnuswendler

I know I always accuse others of straying off the post topic but when I read your comment, it reminded me of this thing I saw where by if you remove the music from Michael Jackson’s video ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, he suddenly looks super creepy:


But thank you for your comment, it’s very good. I never knew if his ailment was true or not – he always seemed to have an answer to justify every weird thing he did – but it is interesting his change coincided with his acceptance to a broader fanbase, which if anything highlights how fucked up society was back in the 80’s and 90’s.

Comment by Rob

In the focus groups research findings I discovered that women will choose who they go to lunch with based on how light their skin is because lighter skin is promoted to higher positions much easier in Thailand.even though the indigenous colour is dark skinned not plutocratic Chinese white.

I think the choice to use safe skin whiteners only is down to the individual but for a corporation to NOT encourage all varieties of skin colour is missing a beauty trick that is more inclusive and ultimately more profitable. In the mean time racism rules and the corporations feed this prejudice.

Comment by Charles Edward Frith (@charlesfrith)

I agree but I would say corporations aren’t missing a trick, they’re being complicit in allowing this cultural prison sentence to exist which given they spout that they’re all for female confidence and independence, makes me sick.

Comment by Rob

My blood boils with you Mr. Campbell. Thank you, all the way from America.
(I won’t get started on the US’s “light-skinned is better than dark-skinned” ideology that’s forever fractured the black community. Though right now, the bleach is more on magazine photo editors’ hands than the cosmetic industry’s.)

If it helps you sleep better/not incite riots at awards shows: Dove’s “Whitening” is actually a deodorant. It’s used to treat underarm darkening. -That’s a thing? -Apparently yes. A woman thing. Seems hormones from pregnancy, bacteria, other fun ailments make many (white) women look like they have perpetual 5 o’clock shadow armpits even when they’re freshly shaven.
So Dove is still cashing in on a female insecurity (or inventing a ridiculous new one?) but it’s not quite the same sociological weapon of mass destruction as skin lighteners.

(Also, it was nice Vaseline used a male actor for the “Whiten Your Face” Facebook app, no? They’re coming for you too.)

Comment by beccataylor

Good points Becca (& thanks for writing) and yes, underarm whitening is not exactly the same as the mass skin whitening but the fact they focus so much on the “white” is not an innocent mistake, especially for a brand that says women should feel good about who they are regardless of who they are.

Comment by Rob

I like this post is getting so much commentary and – apart from mine – good commentary at that. Thank you. I just wish we could force change rather than bitch about it. Many have tried but when big corporations profit from keeping people down, it’s even harder to fight against. But not impossible.

Comment by Rob

A fine post that makes for disturbing reading.

Comment by Lee Hill

I like your angry posts, Robert. They encapsulate what wrong about our trade in a very straighforward, uncompromising way. That being said, (bad) advertising leverages the fears and complexes of people because they’re easier to react to and, one would argue, more effective since they add a sense of urgency and despair to the purchase.
It’s a very irresponsible way of doing business but it works for behemoths like P&G and Unilever, so they won’t acknowledge any wrong-doing since that would take this trick out of their repertoire.
Which is sad and it should piss us off. It doesn’t take the work to the next step, it lowers it to the lowest common denominator, fear of being socially rejected or becoming a pariah.
I’d really love to see more of this attitude in the business, worldwide, not only in Asia but in emerging regions like South America where FMCG conglomerates emotionally blackmail mothers to buy this or that product because it ‘show how much you care about your family’. Moms ALWAYS care about their families but they feel they do not give enough, specially in a enviroment where money is usually tight and everyone has to work to afford the day-to-day cost of running a family.
I feel I vented much of what pisses me off here.
Once again, great post.

Comment by Miguel

At this time I am ready to do my breakfast, later than having my
breakfast coming yet again to read other news.

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Comment by Martin

Yar chutia bnana hai…toh itna jhut toh mt bol
If you want to manipulate asian so atleast don’t be too much fake …your words reflecting too much fakeness and fraud very bad for asian

Comment by hemant9390

[…] brands like Dove have celebrated ‘real beauty’ before – though they also sold skin whitening products so you know that their intentions for female empowerment are not entirely true – but […]

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