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Beauty ideals were built on racist stereotypes. What now?

Beauty brands are facing growing pressure to address the racism built into their products targeted at consumers who live outside the US, particularly those that boast of skin lightening and whitening properties.

Global conglomerates including Unilever, L’Oréal and Johnson & Johnson have begun renaming or removing such products that uphold white skin as desirable. But applying Western expectations onto audiences in Asia, where skin-lightening products are sold, is fraught. Many consumers don’t support the removal of these products, even if the intent is to stop promoting light skin as the beauty ideal, says Sofya Bakhta, marketing strategy analyst at Daxue Consulting, a market research firm in Shanghai.

In Asia, consumers see fair skin as a beauty ideal, and Chinese slang like 白富美 (bai fu mei), which directly translates to “white-rich-beautiful”, is still commonly used in the country to describe a woman who is “perfect”, says Ashley Yang, a 26-year-old from Kunming. She adds that 黑丑穷 (hei chou qiong), which translates as “black-ugly-poor”, has been used to describe something undesirable.

“Asian consumers have their own beauty ideals, and, perhaps, they are not yet ready to abandon the standards that have been formed for decades,” says Bakhta.

Such standards have led beauty companies in Asia to market products that are insensitive to Black people and dark-skinned consumers, says Jason Petrulis, assistant professor of global history at the Education University of Hong Kong. Today, there are over 25,600 skin-whitening products sold by Alibaba. “For years, executives have known they are putting racist products into millions of Asian households, and they have been OK with that.”


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