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The prevalence of skin whitening products in Asia

Here’s an image that appears simple on the surface but depicts a lot with respect to societal differences and beauty standards. In the West it could be argued that one’s tone of skin tends to have less perceived importance than other physical characteristics such as your waist size. With all that can be said about the problems of the fitness industry, perhaps its prevalence has facilitated a shift in beauty standards where people focus more on body composition (less fat, more muscle) than on characteristics such as the tone of your skin. As such, it can be rare to see ‘whitening’ products on the shelves of stores that sell cosmetics. And if they do remain, public pressure is forcing brands to rename or discontinue these products.

In Asia, however, it’s a very different story. Whitening products are very popular and don’t face the same level of negative pushback as found in the West; though it’s fair to say things are changing as people call out celebrities and influencers who support movements of equality yet also accept sponsorships from companies promoting whitening products. In 2020 the skin whitening market in Asia was worth $7.5 billion. Why are skin whitening products so popular in Asia? One argument is that it stems from the historical distribution of wealth that was disproportionately concentrated in the hands of white or colonialist settlers in Asian societies. Wanting to replicate the ‘elites’ in their societies, people sought to lighten or whiten their skin as they associated a fairer skin tone with wealth and prestige.

The above image, showing a whitening product being sold in Jakarta, Indonesia is reflective of current societal attitudes in which some consumers still place value in having lighter skin. However, beauty standards are dynamic and have changed considerably over time. For western women in the 1920s, flat chests were all the rage. Women even wore bras that deliberately flattened their chests. A decade later, large breasts had become the trend people gravitated towards. Over time, beauty standards have done what could be described as a 360, changing completely and then reverting to what they once were.

A positive aspect of social media is that it has encouraged body positivity, promoting the message of being comfortable in one’s skin regardless of whether or not you meet the fickle beauty standards of the time.

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