April 02, 2018

Dove Body Wash, Colorism, and Skin Bleaching

12_01446By Angelique Harris

This past October, Dove, the personal care brand, released an advertisement that garnered quite a bit of negative press. This body wash ad featured a two to three second video of a Black woman wearing a brown shirt. She removes the shirt, revealing a White woman in a light beige shirt, who then takes it off to reveal another woman with a light skin tone.

A Facebook user was the first to post about this ad on her page and simply wrote: “So I’m scrolling through Facebook and this is the #dove ad that comes up… ok so what am I looking at.” This Facebook user also included four screenshots that showed the Black woman in the ad removing her shirt to reveal the White woman. Although these screenshots reveal only part of the ad and the Black woman portrayed in the ad, Lola Ogunyemi, wrote an op-ed defending the intentions behind the ad, many still believed that Dove implied that darker skin was dirty and the ad was widely panned as offensive and racist.

Dove was forced to pull the ad and issue an apology, saying their ad “missed the mark.” Several years ago, Dove was in a similar position when they released an ad that was similarly considered racist. This ad depicted three women standing next to each other in towels, each woman lighter skinned than the next. Above the women were signs depicting dry and cracked “before” and “after” skin; the before sign is above the Black woman, the after sign is above the White woman. One reason why these Dove ads have received so much attention is that they are part of a long line of soap and personal care ads that appear to equate a lighter skin tone with cleanliness and desirability.

Sociocultural perceptions of beauty have great implications for the health and well being of groups, in particular women, as people often put forth great effort to adhere to their culture’s standards of beauty. There are a variety of ways in which people modify their bodies, including tattoos and body building as well as scarification, piercings, and circumcision.

Many forms of body modification face scrutiny and criticism; however, skin bleaching and lightening are among the most controversial. Although reports of skin bleaching are common in other nations, most notably in South Korea, India, and various Caribbean and African nations, we also have examples of skin bleaching and lightening among celebrities here in the United States. For example, baseball legend Sammy Sousa has undergone a noticeable change over the past several years. Sousa, of Haitian and Dominican decent went from being dark skinned with curly hair to lighter skinned with straight hair. In 2009, Sousa explained that he used skin bleaching cream but contends that it is not because he hates his skin tone.

Skin bleaching, or applying a lightening cream to one’s skin in an effort to lighten it, is widely practiced and supported by a multibillion dollar a year beauty industry. Skin bleaching creams are applied multiple times a day to the face, hands, and other visible areas of the body. However, the steroids in the creams that make the skin lighter have numerous negative side effects, including thinning of the skin causing easy damage and bruising.

Colorism, or the preference for lighter skin tones, can be found in cultures throughout the world. According to sociologist Margaret Hunter, “Colorism, or skin color stratification, is a process that privileges light-skinned people of color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market” (p. 237). Alice Walker wrote about colorism in her book, In Search of My Mother’s Gardens, where she describes how Black people, and in particular Black women with lighter skin and longer, straighter hair are often treated better within Black communities. Like racism, colorism supports the notion that whiteness and Caucasian features and culture are superior and more attractive while fueling negative stereotypes concerning darker skin and features.

Unlike racism, however, colorism can be experienced and perpetuated “irrespective of one’s racial background.” As such, people can experience colorism from both within their racial group as well as outside of their racial group as colorism is based on skin tones and features rather than race.

We find colorism and experiences of light skinned privilege in many groups, including among Whites as “even darker-hued [W]hite people have different experiences than their lighter-hued Caucasian counterparts when it comes to access and resources.” In addition to dangers associated with skin bleaching, there is increased media attention focused on the inequalities resulting from colorism in different communities. One online publication is titled, “Hey Latinos – We Need to Talk About Colorism,” and another article focuses on Latinx communities, listing 11 examples of the various privileges that light skinned Latinxs experience including more education and lower rates of unemployment. Among Asian/Pacific Islanders, there are similar patterns as those with lighter skin have better work and marriage prospects.

Although Dove produced yet another tone-deaf ad, this incident has continued toOne positive effect of Dove’s tone-deaf ad is that it furthers the conversation about colorism and highlights the role of organizations and companies in reinforcing certain standards of beauty. Importantly, ads like this one also help us to contextualize standards of beauty and demonstrate the detrimental impact they can have on individuals’ lives and on society as a whole.

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