Whitewashing (beauty)

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Whitewashing in beauty is a phenomenon in the intersection of the fashion industry, digital photography, mass media, marketing and advertising. It describes a situation in which the skin tone of non-white women (less often of men) – when depicted in magazine covers, advertisements, commercials, music videos, etc. – is, digitally retouched or physically modified to appear whiter. Whitewashing can also present itself in the alteration of hair texture to resemble Eurocentric beauty ideals of straight hair. Whitewashing can be seen in the form of skin whitening, either digitally or with harmful skin bleaching products, or by chemically relaxing textured hair to make it conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. Additionally, plastic surgery can be used to alter features to make them appear more European, such as double eyelid surgery.

Whitewashing has been seen for centuries in the media, through film, photography, advertising, etc. Whitewashing in Hollywood is a prevalent issue, often attributed to the lack of racial diversity in the industry itself. Advertising companies often will airbrush their models to make them appear to have lighter skin, as seen in the L'orealcampaign with Beyoncé in 2008.[1]

Whitewashing can also be seen when a film or television show based on a book or other precedent decides to rewrite a non-white role as white and use a white actor to portray the role. This is not to be confused with blackface, which is when a person who is not Black attempts to portray a darker skin tone with makeup or digital editing. This type of whitewashing is most common in the film industry and has been a problem since the beginning of Hollywood.[2] More people of color are being represented in the industry as of late, but whitewashing remains a prevalent issue that can affect self-image of young children whose races have been marginalized in film.'

Cultural whitewashing is also common in the media, in which a culture's traditions are tweaked to satisfy Western stereotypes, such as in the popular film Step Up.[3]

Popular examples


A clear example of beauty whitewashing is a L'Oreal advertising campaign featuring Beyoncé Knowles in which her skin was digitally retouched to appear lighter. This brought the corporation under fire for a significant period. Other examples include celebrities Halle Berry, Brandy, Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Freida Pinto, Jennifer Lopez, Tyra Banks, Leona Lewis, Jennifer Hudson, Gabourey Sidibe and Queen Latifah, in which these figures were subjected to skin lightening during the editing stage of promotional photoshoots.

The photo and video-sharing app, Snapchat, also attracted public criticism in 2016 for potential whitewashing in its photo filters.[4] A particular target of this outcry was the use of words such as "beautify" and "pretty" associated with the skin-lightening filters.[5]


Recently, Rupert Sanders’ Hollywood rendition of the 1995 Japanese manga film Ghost In the Shell came under scrutiny for casting a white actress (Scarlett Johansson,) to play the Japanese protagonist.[6] Though this wasn't physical whitewashing through skin whitening or hair relaxant, it is still considered whitewashing since a white actress was used instead of a Japanese one and the role was rewritten for a white actress.

In the 2014 film Aloha, directed by Cameron Crowe, Emma Stone (a white actress) was cast for the role of Captain Allison Ng, a woman who was partially Hawaiian. Similar to Ghost In the Shell, a white actress was used in place of a person of color, effectively whitewashing the role and the film itself.

Public Figures

Typically, women primarily use products to lighten their skin, but in many cases men also do.[7] Former professional baseball star, Sammy Sosa admitted to using skin bleaching cream in an interview with "Primer Impacto" of the Univision Spanish network.[8] Sammy Sosa said, "It's a bleaching cream that I apply before going to bed and whitens my skin some… It's a cream that I have, that I use to soften [my skin], but has bleached me some. I'm not racist, I live my life happily." [8]


The reasons for altering skin tone in advertisements are believed to be primarily marketing purposes, more specifically directly appealing to whiter ethnicities, which are generally the strongest target groups in consumer-driven areas such as Europe and America.[9] Skin tone manipulation can also reflect the implicit beauty standards or ideals that the marketers perpetuate.[10] Beauty whitewash is criticized for distorting general perceptions of reality, exuding a twisted sense of beauty, and having a negative influence on women, children, and communities alike.[11]

These Eurocentric ideals are forced upon people of color, creating hierarchies within their own communities. Ultimately, whitewashing creates social tension not only between White and non-White communities, but also between groups who resemble the more established beauty standards, such as lighter-skinned African Americans, and the groups who do not, including darker-skinned African Americans.[12] This phenomenon can apply to both men and women of color.[13]

Kai Nelson believes that whitewashing has a negative impact on children in African American communities as well.[14] The media does not always give an accurate view of the races that they are depicting, resulting in a diminishment of self-confidence in African American children. Nelson explains that children interpret the altering of skin color in the beauty industry in a negative way, and can develop a viewpoint that they are "unattractive" and "undesirable".[14] Because of the lack of Black role models in popular media, this causes them to see the Caucasian community as the "default race".[14]

As Ronald Hall describes in his Journal of Black Studies, whitewashing has caused people of color to develop a "bleaching syndrome" which causes an internalization of preference for the dominant, or White, culture’s ideals. This results in people of color developing a contempt for dark skin because it is regarded as an obstacle for assimilation. However, despite adopting white cultural values, people of color are still barred from full assimilation.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Sweney, Mark (2008-08-08). "L'Oreal accused of 'whitening' Beyoncé Knowles in cosmetics ad". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-03-29.
  2. ^ "Hollywood has whitewashed Asian stories for decades. This year, they couldn't ignore the backlash". NBC News. Retrieved 2018-03-29.
  3. ^ VagaBomb (2017-09-07). "Cultural Appropriation & Whitewashing: Everything I Loved about Step up Suddenly Seemed Wrong". VagaBomb. Retrieved 2018-03-30.
  4. ^ "Snapchat criticised over 'filters' which appear to 'whitewash' users' skin". The Independent. 18 May 2016.
  5. ^ Chang, Lulu (18 May 2016). "Snapchat accused of whitewashing its users through 'beautify' filter". DigitalTrends.
  6. ^ Leon, Melissa (2017-03-31). "Here's How 'Ghost in the Shell' Tries (and Fails) to Atone for Its Whitewashing". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 2018-03-02.
  7. ^ Hunter, Margaret (2011). "Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World" (PDF). The Journal of Pan African Studies. 4 (4): 143. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  8. ^ a b Rojas, Enrique. "Sosa: Cream has bleached skin". ESPN. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  9. ^ Mire, Amina (2001). "Skin-Bleaching: Poison, Beauty, Power and the Politics of the Colour Line". Resources for Feminist Research. 28.3: 13–38 – via ProQuest.
  10. ^ Watson, Stevie; DeJong, Penelope (2011). "Ethical Responses To Public Allegations Of Skin Tone Manipulation In Print Advertising: Consumer Indifference Or Consumer Concern?". Journal of Promotion Management. 17.4: 396–406. doi:10.1080/10496491.2011.620485 – via Communication & Mass Media Complete.
  11. ^ Brown, Ashley (2015). "Picture [Im]Perfect: Photoshop Redefining Beauty In Cosmetic Advertisements, Giving False Advertising A Run For The Money". Texas Review Of Entertainment & Sports Law. 16.2: 87–105 – via Academic Search Complete.
  12. ^ Hunter, Margaret (2007). "The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality" (PDF). Sociology Compass. 1 (1): 237–254. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2007.00006.x.
  13. ^ Veras, Edlin (2016). "He's Dark, Dark; Colorism Among African American Men". Georgia State University.
  14. ^ a b c Nelson, Kai (2016). "Where's the Representation? The Impact of White Washing on Black Children". Academic Symposium of Undergraduate Scholarship.
  15. ^ Hall, Ronald (1995). "The Bleaching Syndrome: African Americans' Response to Cultural Domination Vis-a-Vis Skin Color". Journal of Black Studies. 26.2: 172–84. doi:10.1177/002193479502600205.

External links

  • Adam Elliott-Cooper, "The Whitewash of Black Beauty", Ceasefire, The Anti-Imperialist, 11 June 2011
  • Lindsay Kite, "Beauty Whitewashed: How White Ideals Exclude Women Of Color", beautyredefined.net, 28 February 2011[dead link]
  • "‘Whitewashing’ in Mass Media: Exploring Colorism and the Damaging Effects of Beauty Hierarchies." Race and Technology, 10 December 2014
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