By Angy Tan

I was 14 when I bought my first skin-lightening product. It was a Japanese product that I had picked up from Daiso, promising to exfoliate dead skin and reveal the bright white skin underneath it.

I was ecstatic to try it—until I got a rash from some unidentified substances in the product. 12 years later and now metaphorically scarred for life, I’m back here wondering how the beauty industry has changed since then. Turns out, not so much. 

Cultural Appropriation Disguised As Inclusivity

Growing up with East Asian features, I naturally have upturned eyes. Not so much that people pulled their eyes and made fun of me, but enough for bullies to tell me that I look too Chinese to be Malaysian. Or that I look too Chinese to be beautiful. 

That’s why I have a personal vendetta against the ‘fox eye’ makeup trend sweeping the socials a while back. 

The beauty industry is littered with examples of appropriating a culture to sell products. In 2016, MAC Cosmetics marketed their new Vibe Tribe collection with models wearing Native American patterns and prints. Not only that, but the colours in the palette also had names like “Wild Horses” and “Arrowhead”. “It’s inspired by Coachella,” a MAC spokesperson said. “It has nothing to do with Native Americans.” 

Newsflash: Sure, if that’s the story you’re going with, but that’s not how you should sell festival makeup either!

Not to mention the popularisation of traditional beauty tools and wellness practices like ‘Gua Sha’, cupping, and Korean beauty regimes, prompting big brands to swiftly rebrand them to appeal to the wider Western market. (Well, I did mention it because it’s just so annoying!)

It’s not that we don’t want to share our cultures and our features with the world. It just feels like our culture meant nothing to the people who want to wear our looks. And I’m still waiting for someone to compliment my naturally foxy eyes, thank you very much. 

It’s Lucrative To Exploit The Insecurities Of Women Of Colour

Even after the unfortunate Daiso incident, I continued to find ways to make myself white and desirable. I remember walking across the university campus with my friends sharing an umbrella. Not because we’re concerned by the risk of skin cancer and UV rays, but because we didn’t want to get tanned. 

The global skin lightening industry and injectables are valued at around $8.6 billion USD, with the projection to reach $12.3 billion USD by 2027. Unilever’s Fair and Lovely line brought in $56 million USD in 2020. Nuts!

So, as you can see, there’s still a massive demand for skin-lightening products despite warnings about how dangerous these products are

After moving to Europe, where everyone (and I mean everyone) wants to get tanned, I realised how arbitrary beauty standards are. Without moving here, I’d have still been stuck in the same society that values me based on how white my skin is. I’d still be buying products that hurt my self-esteem and skin for a meaningless eternal pursuit of perceived beauty and alleged happiness. 

Not All Hope Is Lost

2020 and 2021 have seen a significant rise in beauty brands willing to move with the times. Big brands like L’Oreal and Unilever announced that they’re dropping the words ‘whitening’, ‘fair’, and ‘lightening’ from their product packaging. Japanese brand Kao followed suit this March, announcing that they would no longer use the words ‘bihaku’—meaning white and beautiful—in their packaging. 

Several indie beauty brands have also come up with excellent products suitable for all women of colour. Singer Rhianna’s Fenty line is an excellent example of this since its mission statement is to create inclusive products of all skin tones, including hard-to-match ones. This shows that brands—especially those with resources and financial backing—CAN be truly racially inclusive. 

Stop Racial Bias In Beauty Brands By Challenging Beauty Standards

At its core, racial bias in beauty brands is rooted in society’s perception of beauty. 

Think about it—why would a company sell a product if nobody is interested in it? How can beauty brands exploit your insecurities if there aren’t any to begin with? 

As a young girl, your idea of beauty is only as good as what society tells you. In my case, it was to be as fair-skinned as possible, which is probably why my local drug store was filled with products that promise ‘eternal fairness’ and ‘snow-white skin’. 

And it’s true—meaningful change can only happen when the consumers challenge the existing beauty standards. 

When we consciously choose inclusive brands that truly represent us, that’s when we tell the world to stop telling us what’s beautiful or not. When the world accepts all colours, shapes, and sizes as beautiful, that’s when beauty brands would truly stop preying on their consumers’ insecurities. 

Oh, and in case no one told you today—YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!