The $8 Billion Skin Lightening Industry Proves 'An Ongoing Colonization of The Mindset'
Amira Adawe on colorism, activism, and the collective harm of beauty culture.
A commenter recently dismissed my work by claiming beauty standards are a problem for the privileged. And I get it. I do. Beauty — in the standardized, industrialized, commercialized sense of the word, which isn’t actually beauty at all, but whatever — is a power structure. It’s tempting to think of it in terms of the power it delivers (privilege). But it’s more useful to analyze it in terms of the oppression it demands in return.
I replied to the commenter with a respectful “No ❤️” and pointed her toward The Beautywell Project, a nonprofit organization that addresses the physical and psychological harm caused by the $8.6 billion skin lightening industry — harm that primarily affects marginalized communities of the Global South; an industry that perpetuates white supremacy (a beauty standard!) and colorism (a beauty standard!).
Longtime readers will likely recognize the name of The Beautywell Project’s founder, Amira Adawe. I’ve interviewed her for quite a few articles in the past, like my Teen Vogue column, “How White Supremacy and Capitalism Influence Beauty Standards”, and the inaugural issue of this newsletter, “Where Are All The Brown Hands?”. What I love about her work is that it doesn’t begin and end with products: She educates communities on the history of colorism and its influence on today’s cultural norms. She researches the mental health effects of skin lightening standards and the physical health effects of skin lightening ingredients. She advocates for cosmetic policy changes in both the corporate and political spheres. (For example, in the past few years, the Beautywell Project has petitioned Amazon to ban the sale of skin lightening creams and collaborated with Google to ban “the promotion of skin lightening products that imply the superiority of one skin tone over another.”) And yes, she targets companies that capitalize on colorism, too. Adawe’s approach to activism has helped shape the way I cover these issues as a reporter.
Ahead, we discuss how the ideology of chattel slavery is embedded in the beauty industry, why skincare brands are scared to stop selling lightening creams, and our individual responsibility to divest from the Western beauty ideal.
(For more on Adawe and her work at The Beautywell Project, I highly recommend watching this six-minute documentary produced by CNN as part of its fantastic “White Lies” series. There’s some fascinating information in here about the limits of the FDA cosmetic regulation! For instance, many of the products Adawe buys and tests in the U.S. are technically illegal and contain “banned” ingredients — and yet, they’re still available for purchase.)
Jessica DeFino (me): As an intro, can you explain to readers what colorism is exactly, and how it manifests in the beauty industry?
Amira Adawe: When colonizers went to all of these countries — Africa, Asia, and Latin America — they introduced the idea that whiteness is good, that nothing is better than white. If you’re white you have better economic wellbeing, you have good employment attainment, education attainment, and better overall wellbeing. Most importantly, the beauty standard: “If you’re white, you’re beautiful; if not, you are nothing.” That was the ideology that the colonizers introduced to these countries. Even when they left, that becomes part of the culture. It’s so embedded in the cultures — it’s really part of their mindsets, and it’s a generational mindset. The colonizers left, but they left a legacy. That legacy of whiteness is what’s impacting people and keeps promoting colorism. Same with slavery. It was the same ideology. Those with darker skin were working in the fields outside, and those with lighter skin were favored. They worked in the homes. In beauty standards, that was also the case. Those with lighter skin were considered beautiful, and that is still an ongoing thing within cultures and within groups — not only from white to black or brown skin, but within cultures. I meet a lot of people who aren’t happy with their skin color and as a result they want to create a whole different lifestyle of changing their skin color [with skin lightening products]. Colorism is an ongoing colonization of the mindset. It’s deeply rooted trauma.
JD: What are some of the mental and physical health effects of skin lightening products that have come up in your research?
AA: There is the psychological aspect, but it’s a huge physical health issue. Skin lightening products are very toxic. We’re talking about individuals who have used these products for 15 years — their kidneys are impacted, some of them have tons of health issues that are associated with skin lightening. The public health system has not given attention to this. It’s also a huge environmental exposure issue; it’s environmental injustice. These chemicals end up in the environment and affect communities of color. I just came back from Dubai — I went to interview the skin lightening global dealers that are based in Dubai. Some of them told me that the products they ship to Africa are more toxic compared to the ones that go to Western countries. The health impact comes to affect the whole continent. So it’s a huge problem that’s impacting the Global South, Asia, and Latin America, and it’s deeply rooted in white supremacist ideology.
More on the effects of
JD: So how do we go about addressing an issue that’s so widespread? When it comes to mitigating these cosmetic outcomes, is it enough to go after product manufacturers?
AA: I've been doing this work for 15 years and companies, globally, are watching and seeing ways they can change. That’s very positive. That’s the starting point of making global change. However, the movements have to continue. We have to still pressure companies. Some of them are just changing the names [of their products]. To me, it’s the same thing.
JD: Right! There was that CNN report about how corporations like Nivea, Pond's, Unilever, and L'Oreal promised to stop using marketing terms like ‘whitening’ and ‘fairness’ following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. But really, these companies are still promoting whiteness as beauty, especially via their international brands — they don’t always use the word “white” now, but they’ll use light-skinned models and promise “peachy complexions.” And so, despite surface-level changes, the global market for skin whitening is projected to be worth nearly $12 billion by 2026 — up from $8 billion in 2020. It’s making even more money.
AA: The beauty industry is very manipulative. My research is in global cosmetics — so what happens is that a big cosmetic company might have five smaller companies that are based in Africa, but you and I might not know they own them unless we do the research. It’s a system that’s been going on for many, many, many years. We still have a lot of work to do. From my research in Dubai, companies attest to that. They said, We might lose business [if they stop selling skin lightening products]. There’s so much fear in cosmetic companies.
JD: You really focus on challenging the colonizer mindset and colorism on a cultural level, too.
AA: That gets to the work of Beautywell. Our work is community based, very community focused and about helping people, empowering people, and changing their mindset. We’re not going to see a lot of change until we help individuals realize who they are — starting from teaching them their culture and building their identities. How do we help these young Black and brown teens to understand who they are? To understand what happened historically during slavery, during colonizations? Many communities never went back to their culture and heritage. It’s also about educating them about toxic products and building their health literacy. The core of it is to change human minds and connect them to who they are. I want to underscore that [skin lightening] hugely impacts Black people. This whole thing is anti-Blackness.
JD: And what about on the individual level? What’s kind of responsibility do individuals have here, in your opinion?
AA: What we’re dealing with is systemic, so we have to be careful and not blame communities of color [for taking part in skin lightening practices]. But as individuals, they have a responsibility. We work with them so they see that responsibility. Some people don’t even realize. The beauty industry has so many ads and advertisements, they just play with people’s mindsets. We have to create safe spaces for these communities, because that safe space helps the individual to really be who they are — and also decide to stop using these products.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A portion of proceeds from Unpublishable subscriptions is donated to The Beautywell Project each month. You can support their work with your own donation here.
as an asian, i really wish we could acknowledge that colorism existed in asia long before "colonizers" (and judging by the language used in this article, we're really talking about white european/american colonizers, aren't we?) came to asia, as if throughout our history, nobody had the capacity to independently come up with shitty, harmful ideas. (also, let's stop pretending europe and america were the only places capable of colonization and imperalism. china and japan are right there.) it feels really, i don't know, almost arrogant? i would really like if western activists could stop acting like their countries are the root of all evil and everybody else was a morally flawless victim with cultures unworthy of examination. i would really like if western activists could stop centering their own cultures' baggage in discussions of other places' issues. (i have noticed this is a phenomenon that occurs quite commonly across all spheres among western activists, especially among white activists who have recently discovered their ancestors had problems other than racism, and are now desperate to signal their rejection of that history.)
in my own experience, asian colorism, at least in (south)east asia, actually differs quite significantly from the colorism i've observed in america. there's no pressure to appear /ethnically/ white; the expectation is to be as close as you can to literally /white/, to have as light as possible skin. it's an idea arising from classism; the upper class, having the leisure not to work under the sun, would have much lighter skin than those below them—thus, the paler your skin, the more evident your superiority. you aren't viewed more favorably compared to dark-skinned people if you're "merely" tanned; only the end of the spectrum is valued. people in asia are aware that the western beauty standard for white people is to be healthily tanned, while asians are encouraged to be as pale as possible, so whiteness (race) isn't generally looked upon as aspirational. our colorism has roots as far back as the han dynasty; of course, it's all ultimately an idea meant to exert control upon and create divisions within the population, as with all beauty standards, but i don't think we can properly address it if we don't acknowledge its long history and our forebears' own complicity in it. :(
Thanks for bringing Beautywell to my attention, Jess. Skin lightening as an ideal in Asia (where I spend a lot of time) is everywhere, too, and clearly arises out of a racist/classist culture. xo