Racist Ad Raises Questions About Beauty Ideals

A screenshot from a racist Snowz ad campaign. (Photo: Seoul Secret)

A new Thai ad campaign for a skin lightening pill called Snowz (cause that’s subtle!) is claiming that “just being white” will help you “win.” The commercial features a happy, fair-skinned actress alongside her troubled doppelganger whose skin slowly turns dark from no longer faithfully taking the product. Being “eternally white,” the actress says, makes her confident. And the ad’s unmistakable message: true beauty—the kind that ‘s valued, gets you noticed and gives you confidence—is white.

In Asia, a definition of beauty that prioritizes fair skin and Caucasian features is nothing new. South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita (an estimated 1/3 to 1/5 of women in Seoul have had work done) and among the most popular procedures are double eye lid surgery and rhinoplasty, both of which make facial features appear more Caucasian.  Similarly, bleaching clinics and products abound there. One even boldly asked in its advertisements “Do You Wanna Be White?” Plus let’s not forget that Nina Davuluri, the Indian American who was crowned Miss America in 2014, was widely considered by the Indian media as too dark skinned to have ever been crowned Miss India.

Sadly, this misguided concept of beauty isn’t only popular overseas. Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Nicole Richie, Khloé Kardashian—what do all these famous women of color have in common (besides tickets to the best upcoming Oscar parties?)  Since they’ve been in the public eye, they’ve all gotten significantly blonder and many of them appear to have had surgery to refine their noses.  “Women of color celebrated as ‘beautiful’ in our culture often have features we associate with whiteness,” says Maisha Z. Johnson, a writer who covers race and beauty for Everyday Feminism. “They might not be white, but they usually have Anglicized features like smaller noses, thinner lips, and less prominent curves.”

And that’s a problem, according Jennifer Berger, Executive Director of About-Face, a non-profit in San Francisco, CA, that aims to equip girls and women to resist harmful media messages.  "We’re at a crossroads where ethnic diversity is ostensibly becoming more valued and visible in Hollywood, but yet some women of color to still want to—or feel like they have to—look lighter or white. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could all get comfortable with more celebrities with dark skin, like Gabourey Sidibe and Lupita N’yongo, who don’t have fine, European-looking features?“

A box of skin whitening pills. (Photo: Seoul Secret)

However, even for actresses that don’t change the way they look, the media is doing it for them. Some actresses are having their skin lightened digitally in photos, without their consent. InStyle magazine was widely criticized for lighting its March 2015 cover shot of Kerry Washington in a way that made it appear that her skin had been lightened. “Glad you made the cover Kerry, but this isn’t right. I’m sorry it’s not. Don’t let them do that to you,” one fan posted Washington’s social media feeds.  The ugly truth is that our beauty standards have long been telling women of color that they’re not attractive as they are—and ads like the one for Snowz reveal just how damaging that’s been.

So let’s call them out and shut them down—and then maybe we can all start “winning” at beauty. Snowz has already taken down the offensive ad, saying that they apologize and didn’t intend to convey discriminatory or racist messages. Let’s hope other brands learn from their mistake.

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