Tag Archives: skin lightening



Debbie says:

K-Pop is not my thing, but I am more and more aware of friends who follow it, talk about it, think about it, and care about it. So Joanna Fuertes’ essay on “K-Beauty” at Medium, which turns out to be a few months old, caught my eye this week.

Playing a starring role [in the all-things-Korean culture explosion] is a glorious onslaught of Korean beauty products, with the K-Beauty market now valued at over $13 billion, and $7.2 billion of which is from facial skin care alone. Serums, acids, oils, cushion compacts, CC creams, BB creams, masks that bubble on your face, masks to sleep in, volcanic clay, and snail slime are seeing improbably explosive popularity, and they’ve done so with accessible pricing and cute packaging that has grown women reaching for panda face masks.

Fuertes is interested both in the consumer appeal of the K-Beauty products …

So how is the Korean beauty industry seemingly light years ahead of us in the first place? One explanation is they’ve just been doing it longer. “The philosophical and cultural underpinnings have been in place for centuries, long before it was ever commercialized, and Koreans valuing their skin is not a new phenomenon” [Jude] Chao [whom Fuertes describes as “somewhat of an oracle on K-Beauty”] explains.

There is also an inadvertent appeal to a Western audience that is becoming more interested in natural ingredients. Most recently, K-Beauty has had snail mucin fever, using slime collected from garden snails crawling around on a mesh net in a dark, humid room. Once beautifully packaged in a glossy jar, it’s easier to overlook the ick factor and aspire to dermatologists’ claims that it encourages effervescent, aging-resistant skin.

… and the commercial factors driving their success:

“What people don’t see is the amount of government support and PR that drives interest around everything from Korean food to Hollywood buying the rights to Korean dramas,” says Chao. “Skin care is another form of popular culture that’s proved to be a powerful export. So, if you go to beauty trade shows, it’s not unusual to have a Korean government presence supporting at least some of the homegrown brands.”

The involvement of the Korean government is no surprise to anyone who has lived in New York City, where the “Korean deli” — a mom-and-pop convenience store with little or no Korean products — is found everywhere. Korean delis thrive in part  because the Korean embassies help immigrants through every step of the process, including advising them on what to stock and how to display — which is why they all look so familiar and are so easy to navigate.

In her analysis of the appeal of the products, Fuertes digs into Korean history, western Orientalism, and the deep-seated conviction in so many cultures around the world that fair skin is better and more desirable. In her analysis of the commerce aspects, she exposes Western appropriation, and readiness to repackage inexpensive products in costly trappings.

In sharp contrast to Fenty Beauty,  Rihanna’s cosmetics line, which I wrote about early this year, the K-Beauty craze is less about people of color finding and promoting their own style for people with skin like theirs, and more about the monetary value of everything from snail mucin to skin lightening, with (of course) the money flowing towards the oligarchs of the white western world.

At the same time, the music and drama explosion of K-artists does seem (to the extent I understand it) to be a genuine import of Korean aesthetics and preferences; here’s hoping that the less expensive, more genuine products Chao is promoting make their way into Western hands, and the money flows to the people who make them, not the Westerners who repackage them.

And I am always happier when there’s less skin lightening and more encouragement of satisfaction with your own skin of any color.

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Same Family, Different Colors


Debbie says:


I recently finished Same Family Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America by Lori L. Tharps. Tharps describes herself as a Black (medium-dark) woman with a Spanish husband. Of her three children, two are lighter-skinned than herself and one is darker. This led her to get interested in and explore colorism from various perspectives: after the introduction which largely distinguishes colorism from racism while always aware of the connections between the two, the book is broken up into sections on Black, Latino/a experience, Asian experience, and mixed-race families. Each section begins with basic historical research and continues with four or five interviews with people from multicolored families from the groups in question.

While Tharps is unwavering about the role of white supremacist society, commerce/industry, and media in colorism, nonetheless she chose to focus on life in families, specifically families with significant internal color variation. The research, which I found very useful, is really there to provide context for the interviews. Nonetheless, I found the research very useful. She largely debunks the presumption that the color division in Black communities is related to house slaves vs. field slaves, and she uses the historical sections to reinforce the ties between attitudes within a community of color and the larger white-supremacy culture. She documents an East Asian preference for lighter skin dating back to centuries before any Europeans set foot on those shores.

The interviews, the heart of the book, are a bit shorter and a shallower than I would like, but they are well done and with an excellent range of perspectives–people with lighter skin than their families, people with darker skin, people who were supported within their families regardless of skin color, people whose families placed great weight on skin color to their benefit, people whose families placed great weight on skin color to their detriment. She frequently addresses “light skin isolation,” the experience of someone who may have wider social acceptance because of light skin, but also may feel estranged from, or insufficiently part of, a darker-skinned family.

One of Tharps’ stated goals is to distinguish colorism from racism, again without any level of denial of racism. Another is to examine how family support can help children of different colors, and how family lack of support can be harmful, while also talking with people who ignored, or transcended, or reversed their families’ expectations and prejudices.

I read the book mostly because I am close to two young siblings with different colored skins. After I borrowed, but before I read, the book, I specifically used the word “chocolate” to refer to a baby’s skin color (on social media) and got kindly schooled by a friend of color who pointed out that some dark-skinned people are offended by the common use of commodity terms (and specifically commodities historically harvested by slaves) to describe dark skin color, so the topic is much on my mind.

Tharps uses words like “chocolate” and “coffee,” as well as color words (brown, tan, beige) and other terms as they seem to fit. Towards the end of the book she acknowledges that some people may be unhappy with some of her choices; she spends some time exploring possible color words.

While she is a huge advocate of change beginning within the family, she ends the book with a rallying cry to fight back against the multibillion dollar skin lightening industry, which is most thoroughly established in India but has footholds everywhere. Laurie and I have written about this before: boycotting Dove, whose parent company Unilever sells “Fair & Lovely,” a leading skin lightening cream, is a good start. After all, Dove claims to be committed to “real beauty.”

Thanks to Darlene for lending me the book.