Recent years have seen evolving awareness of systemic inequities including racism, sexism and pro-Western chauvinism.

The concept of intersectionality invites scholars and thinkers to take a more nuanced approach centred on how these biases interact, rather than viewing them in isolation or as additive challenges.

Thinking along intersectional lines provides an opportunity to focus immediate attention – and target intervention – on those most at risk. It also equips us to examine how the actions of various stakeholders may reduce or exacerbate these interwoven risks.

Consider the worldwide phenomenon of colourism or systemic bias in favour of lighter-shaded skin over darker. Even in non-white majority countries, research has consistently found fairness of complexion to be correlated with better life outcomes.

Skin-lightening products market is projected to reach US$31 billion by 2024

In emerging Asian and African economies, the natural aspiration to enhance one’s circumstances has led to rapid growth in the market for skin-lightening products, which is projected to reach US$31 billion by 2024.

Though both men and women partake, the vast majority of habitual skin-lightening consumers are female. In one study of university students across Asia, Africa and the Americas, 30 per cent of women participants reported using the products, as compared to 17 per cent of men. 

Our research (paper forthcoming in Psychology of Women Quarterly)[1] uses experimental evidence from India to explore how the combination of colourism, gender bias and economic disadvantage affects demand for risky skin-lightening products. What we found challenges the notion that such products can be empowering to oppressed women seeking to improve their station in life. Instead, we show how a sense of internalised disempowerment activates women’s desire to lighten their skin and, even more worryingly, places their health at risk.

Objectification

We hypothesised that women are the primary audience for whitening products, despite the cross-gender impact of colourism. This is because of self-objectification, a byproduct of sexism that causes women across lines of race and ranges of skin tones to be more sensitive to their appearance due to its implications for their social status.

When women receive reminders of their disempowerment on top of their chronic objectification, they might clutch at the nearest remedy – in this case, skin-lightening agents (which ubiquitous advertisements assure them will make them look far more beautiful and hence transform their lives for the better).

The greater their concerns regarding social standing, the more likely they are to bypass over-the-counter products such as Unilever’s Glow & Lovely (which are medically benign, essentially similar to sunscreen) in favour of riskier “pharmaceutical” products that have been linked to a host of adverse long-term health effects.

The latter category of products are aimed at suppressing melanin production, and many varieties have been found to contain chemicals banned in some markets, including hydroquinone, corticosteroids and/or mercury. Officially, they are available only with a doctor’s prescription.

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About the author

INSEAD Knowledge is the expert opinion and management insights portal of INSEAD, The Business School for the World. Knowledge showcases the latest business thinking and views from award-winning faculty and global contributors

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