Are Beauty Products Now Racist?

J Pat Carter

The cosmetics industry has become the latest battlefront in the war against so-called structural racism by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other associated social justice warriors.

The beauty battle centers on popular skin-lightening products sold by household names such as L’Oreal and Nivea. Opponents claim these products are inherently racist in promoting “colorism”, a white/fair-skinned beauty standard. After a successful campaign to pressure several international brands to change the names and marketing of their products, opponents now are calling for the industry to ban these products.

In doing so, they are squelching two critical aspects of individual freedom: the fundamental right of consumer choice and the ability to express oneself on the most personal level through physical appearance. If the beauty ban is successful, a very dangerous precedent would be set. Even worse, it would open a pandora’s box to all types of potentially problematic products that would be nearly impossible to close.

The push against these products is being led by former Miss America Nina Davuluri and self-proclaimed plus-size style blogger and journalist Stephanie Yeboah. After mounting a successful campaign to pressure several top brands to not only apologize, but change the names of their lightening products and cease all related marketing, these leaders are now calling for an all-out ban of these widely popular products. Not surprisingly, this sham has received major media coverage recently. For instance, CBS News ran the headline, “Companies under fire for skin-lightening creams: ‘They need to ban the products.’” Not to be outdone, U.S. News & World Report published a story titled, “‘Whitening’ Creams Undergo a Makeover but Colorism Persists.” This is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, what exactly is colorism? According to feminist author Alice Walker, who coined the term, it is a global cultural practice within-groups and between-groups promoting prejudice in favor of lighter skin color. Aside from abstract and shallow arguments, there is little historical evidence to back up the theory of colorism as a one-sided form of racial prejudice.

On the contrary, social favorability for one skin tone over another has long been a class issue, not a racial one. Prior to modern industrial society, fair colored skin was a sign of belonging to the aristocracy or social elite due to the fact that one did not have to spend time outside toiling away in the agrarian economy.

Therefore, while darker suntanned skin became a marker of the working class, lighter skin became a desired sign of privilege. Of course this binary reversed with the advent of industrial society when the working class masses moved indoors to factories and retail jobs. By the mid 20th century, social norms had completely shifted to favor darker tanned skin as a sign of beauty and leisure.

So, if lightening one’s skin is now considered racist, what about the ever-increasing popularity of beauty products and services that darken pale skin? Everyone knows that tanning oils, tanning salons, bronzing creams, etc. are a huge part of the beauty industry. In fact, the beauty industry sells substantially more products and services intended to darken one’s skin than lighten one’s skin. And there are many popular products that include overt racial language and marketing in favor of dark skin.

For example, Walmart and Amazon offer Millennium Tanning’s New Paint It Black Auto-Darkening Dark Tanning Lotion 50X as well as Devoted Creations’ Black Obsession Black Bronzer. Is this reverse racism? Of course not. It just means that many pale-skinned people believe they look better with bronzed or very dark skin. On the other hand, dark-skinned people should be free to purchase items that have the opposite effect.

Taking the point further, is it ageist to promote products intended to reverse or hide the natural aging process, which includes wrinkles, crow’s feet, and saggy skin? And should Covergirl abandon their beloved Simply Ageless makeup collection? No, of course not.

Moreover, should all diet products be banned because they indirectly, or in many instances directly promote fat shaming? No way. Even more extreme, if colorism is taken to its logical conclusion (an oxymoron, I know) many plastic surgery procedures should be eliminated because they perpetuate Anglo-Saxon beauty standards. No more nose jobs, tummy tucks, and facelifts. And all teeth-whitening products have got to go.

Except for hypocritical Hollywood, of course, which puts a huge emphasis on outdated and unhealthy beauty ideals.

The point is simple, people should be allowed to alter their appearance to meet their criteria of beauty. After all, beauty is subjective and deeply personal.

And, consumers should have the freedom to buy any product (even if some narrow-minded alarmists may consider it problematic), as long as it does not impede on anyone else’s freedom; or in this case promote truly racist ideas, tropes, or hate speech. Ironically, this is the exact opposite argument spewed by social justice warriors, who all too often fight for equality, but resort to imposing their views (via bans and mandates) on everyone. This is a ridiculous standard, or lack thereof, that flies in the face of personal freedom for everyone.

In America, individuals have the right to express themselves through their speech, how they dress, and how they choose to present themselves via their physical appearance. Freedom to control one’s body is a basic human right.

Perhaps those pushing to ban skin lightening creams (that people willingly purchase to alter their own appearance) should focus their attention on more critical problems plaguing Africa, Asia, and the Middle East (where these products are most popular). For example, how about the millions of young girls who are victims of barbaric female genital mutilation who desperately need help? The same can be said for the persecuted albinos of Africa who are hunted like animals for their body parts. Or the female victims of foot-binding in Asia. Tragically, these horrific “cultural” practices receive far too little attention from Western media and myopic social (media) justice advocates.

In America, fortunately, beauty is not a zero-sum game because beauty comes in all genders, shades, shapes, and sizes. And most importantly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not out-of-touch media elites and social justice soldiers.

Unless and until media hypocrites and their social justice brethren renounce their makeup routines, shun their hair products, and discard their designer wardrobes, which arguably perpetuate the exact same myths they are decrying, their words will remain as hollow and shallow as their latest cause du jour.

Chris Talgo ([email protected]) is an editor at The Heartland Institute. E. Christian Talgo is a freelance writer.