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Whitening vs. Tanning

The Economics of Skin Tone

By: Naya Dukkipati

"Laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color." Unknown

Pale skin girls in search of the ideal “glow”, dark skin girls in search of “brightness”, both fall prey to the euphemistic terms pushed by cosmetic companies, social media, and even well meaning friends. These innocent words are in truth, covert messaging on achieving the ideal skin tone. The recent ironic backlash of shaming white girls for culturally appropriating if they look “too tan” or history of shaming Black or Asian girls who use lightening creams for succumbing to western ideals of beauty, leaves all girls confronted with confusing beauty standards.

To understand the politics of beauty today, a little history of how we got here helps. A look back into the forces that shaped the desire for a darker or lighter skin tone reveals that both pursuits are directly linked to identification with social class, security, and success.

The ideal of beauty has always had connections to wealth. This is why the European ideal of pale skin endured into the 20th century with “blue bloods'' being the term used to signify the color of one’s veins from living a sheltered life indoors contrasted against the working class that had tanner skin from being more exposed to labor in the outdoor environment. But this changed in the summer of 1923 with a photo of Coco Chanel in the French Riviera. In a 2018 article on the history of tanning in, “While paler skin had once been the mark of privilege, tanned skin now signified that you had the time and money to leisurely darken your complexion.” The trend of tan skin and its association with wealth and class had taken root.

Similarly, the desire for lighter skin across the tanner populations of Asians, Africans, and Blacks across all continents, has deep connections to colonialism. The class structure associated within them has long been universally acknowledged to have a heavy influence on women’s obsession with whitening agents to increase their social status by submitting to the beauty ideals of those in power. Security and status for a woman came from her desirability to a man, whose idea of beauty was also indoctrinated by western standards. In a study by Robert L. Reece in The Journal of Black Studies, research proved the hypothesis that successful black men tended to marry lighter skinned women. This inevitably puts the pressure on darker women to adopt the idealization of lighter skin as a signifier of upward mobility.

Tanning and colorism, though rooted in different historical contexts, suffer from the same motivational model- preoccupation with class. Since being upwardly mobile is an aspirational model of success, all the components associated with it, such as the right skin color, becomes aspirational as well.

In looking to fashion and beauty icons at both ends of the color spectrum such as Lupito Nyong'o and Sophie Turner who have rejected the trap of homogeneous skin tone ideals, we too can embrace a new association between how we look and how we associate that with success.

Taking care of the skin you have, instead of trying to change it into something it wasn’t meant to be, brings true power. Investing in yourself, instead of products, carves out your real path to success.


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