A String of Pearls, A String of Pain

According to r/SkincareAddiction, a popular forum on reddit, “having a core [skincare] routine provides your skin with all the necessary steps to keep it clean, healthy, and protected.” (reddit is a multi-vocal, online watering hole for all kinds of ideologies and obsessions.) Clearday, the fictional company in Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, would add a fourth adjective to that list: white.

We meet Clearday in the midst of a marketing meltdown after their recent ad campaign, in which “a young dark-skinned woman...is left by her boyfriend for a whiter-skinned woman. Distraught, the heroine takes a trip to her local supermarket to buy ice cream, only to be stopped by a store clerk with a white halo, who recommends that she try the Clearday™ White Pearl cream.” The ad has two parts; both are this racist. The second part of the ad features a white woman turning into a black woman, even after using the cream, because White Pearl “only works on inner beauty.”

If a beauty company claiming that their products—skin whitening or otherwise—are about inner rather than external beauty sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In 2004, Dove launched its then-groundbreaking “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” which featured “real” women: real in the sense that they weren’t all skinny white models. (The idea that your realness as a woman is determined by the degree to which your body is not like other women’s is hardly a feminist call to arms.) Today, the Dove website includes a “Real Beauty Pledge” for “all women to realize their personal potential for beauty by engaging them with products that deliver superior care.” Beauty, in other words, is simultaneously innate and also, totally attainable if you use this exfoliator. It’s an ethos that’s surprisingly (shockingly?) well-articulated by a prepubescent Harry Styles, then of the boyband One Direction: “You don’t know you’re beautiful,” Styles croons. “And that’s what makes you beautiful.”

In White Pearl, the marketing surrounding women’s beauty (or lack thereof, if you believe the hype) operates on two levels: implicitly, on the racism of nearly global anti-blackness; and explicitly, on the intra-Asian racism that’s wrapped tightly around striations of class and colorism. While both types of racism inform whitening creams, White Pearl focuses how ideologies of whiteness, distinct from American notions of whiteness, appear and circulate among Asian women. Per This Week in Asia in 2019: “In Asia, there is a deeply rooted cultural notion that associates dark skin with poverty and working in the fields, whereas pale skin reflects a more comfortable life out of the sun and, therefore, a higher socioeconomic status.”

In 2004, the World Health Organization published a report that “nearly 40% of women surveyed in China (Province of Taiwan and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea reported using skin lighteners.” And although estimates of the costs associated with buying into this whiteness vary, the generally agreed upon range is firmly in the billions: In 2017, Global Industry Analysts predicted that the global skin-lightening (which includes whitening creams) will reach $23B by 2020, propelled by markets in Asia, particularly India, Japan, and China.

While experts debate about exactly how lucrative the skin-lightening market will be, and when, what they aren’t debating are the health consequences of using those products. As Buzzfeed reported, “Some of those effects are minor irritations like inflammation, redness, burning, or flaking skin. In more extreme cases, whitening creams with hydroquinone, corticosteroids, or mercury can cause hypertension, kidney or liver damage, thin skin, or—if used while pregnant—birth defects.” In 2017, Frontiers in Public Health revealed that more than half of whitening products tested in India had “highly active and potentially dangerous agents,” including hydrogen peroxide, because the skin-lightening market also includes skin bleachers, which do exactly what you think they do. There’s also the consideration of cancer: As Dr. Bav Shergill of the British Skin Foundation explained to The Guardian, “Melanin is produced by melanocytes to protect the DNA of our skin from sun damage. Excessively reducing this concentration of melanin may increase the risk of skin cancers."

The relationship between women and beauty, triangulated by pain, will always be a tangled one, but what punches through that web is this: As a woman, what you look like (more accurately, how your looks are perceived) always tells a story. It’s a bit like theatre, really, except the cost of your ticket might just be the rest of your life. But when people use your face to determine whether they’ll hire you, whether they’ll trust you, whether they’ll love you—with those kinds of stakes, why wouldn’t you pay to play?

—Sarah Cooke