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Dove, real beauty and the racist history of skin whitening

In today’s world, the concept of beauty is heavily influenced by media representations, societal standards, and historical biases. Dove, a prominent brand known for its campaigns promoting “Real Beauty,” has been praised for challenging conventional beauty norms. However, behind the façade of empowerment lies a complex history intertwined with the promotion of skin whitening products, reflecting deep-seated racism and colonial legacies.

The story of skin whitening traces back to colonialism and imperialism, where Eurocentric ideals of beauty were imposed on colonized populations. Lighter skin was associated with higher social status, while darker skin was stigmatized and deemed inferior. This legacy continues to reverberate in modern-day beauty standards, perpetuating colorism and discrimination.

Dove’s journey into the realm of beauty products began with its parent company, Unilever, which has a long history of marketing skin whitening creams in Asia and Africa. Despite Dove’s efforts to distance itself from these products, the company’s involvement in promoting skin lightening is undeniable. In 2017, Dove faced backlash over an advertisement that depicted a black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman underneath—a clear allusion to the outdated and offensive trope of “before and after” skin lightening.

The irony of Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign lies in its failure to address the root causes of beauty standards and its complicity in perpetuating them. By promoting a narrow definition of beauty that often excludes darker-skinned individuals, Dove inadvertently reinforces societal prejudices. Furthermore, Dove’s attempts at inclusivity often come across as tokenistic, as evidenced by its use of diverse models in advertisements while simultaneously promoting products that perpetuate colorism.

Dove’s exploitation of racial insecurities for profit is not unique in the beauty industry. Many multinational corporations continue to market skin whitening products in regions where colorism is deeply entrenched, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and contributing to low self-esteem among marginalized communities. Despite growing criticism, the global skin whitening industry is projected to reach billions of dollars in revenue by 2024, highlighting the enduring demand for products that promise to lighten skin.

To combat the pervasive influence of skin whitening products, there must be a concerted effort to challenge Eurocentric beauty standards and promote inclusivity and diversity. This requires not only holding corporations like Dove accountable for their actions but also dismantling systemic racism and colonial legacies that continue to shape perceptions of beauty.

Education and awareness play crucial roles in challenging the status quo. By unpacking the historical roots of beauty standards and exposing the harmful effects of colorism, individuals can begin to interrogate their own biases and advocate for change. Moreover, supporting brands that prioritize genuine inclusivity and representation can help shift the narrative surrounding beauty.

Dove’s journey from promoting skin whitening products to championing “Real Beauty” is emblematic of the complexities inherent in the beauty industry. While the brand has made strides in challenging conventional beauty norms, its past associations with skin lightening serve as a sobering reminder of the deep-seated racism that continues to permeate society. True progress will require not just surface-level changes, but a fundamental shift in attitudes and values towards beauty, one that celebrates diversity in all its forms. Only then can we move towards a more inclusive and equitable vision of beauty for all.

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Bonnie J. Sung

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