Whitewashing in beauty is a phenomenon in the intersection of 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.
Probably the most cited and notorious example of beauty whitewashing is a L'Oreal advertising campaign featuring Beyoncé Knowles; 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, among others.
Typically, women primarily use products to lighten their skin, but in many cases men also do. Former professional baseball star, Sammy Sosa admitted to using skin bleaching cream in an interview with “Primer Impacto” of the Univision Spanish network. 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.”
The photo- and video-sharing app Snapchat also attracted public criticism in 2016 for whitewashing in its photo filters. A particular target of this outcry was the use of words such as "beautify" and "pretty" associated with the skin-lightening filters.
Reasons for altering skin tone in advertisements are believed to be marketing, more specifically appealing to whiter ethnicities which are generally the strongest target groups in consumer-driven countries such as Europe and America. Skin tone manipulation can also reflect the implicit beauty standards or ideals that the marketers perpetuate. 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.
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. This phenomenon can apply to both men and women of color.
Kai Nelson believes that whitewashing has a negative impact on children in African American communities as well. 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”. Because of the lack of Black role models in popular media, this causes them to see the Caucasian community as the “default race”.
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.