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On Why Dove’s Moisturiser for ‘Normal to Dark Skin’ is Harmful to Self-Esteem

This morning, during a cursory glance at Facebook, I spotted a mobile upload, posted by my old high school friend, Laura Dunkley. She posted this photo, along with this caption:

Laura: Not being funny but I think this is possibly unintentionally racist. Is dark skin not considered ‘normal’ by Dove???

 

Now, normally, I would not have noticed this myself, were I wondering around a shop such as Boots or similar. The reason I would not have noticed are pretty much going to be the crux of this blog post, but I will mention that I am a British (South) Asian woman in my late twenties, having been born & brought up in the south of England, where I’ve lived pretty much my whole life. I’ll come back to that later.

But, suddenly, with Laura actively pointing it out, something went off in my head. Here was Dove, very explicitly putting forward one type of skin as normal, and dark skin as, well, not normal

“Wow.” I posted in reply. “No, really, that is pretty racist.” I asked Laura’s permission to share it on Twitter, and on my own Facebook, and then went ahead and posted it. In both posts, I tagged Dove’s official accounts, on Twitter and Facebook respectively.

I also did something else, though, which I never thought I’d do. I started talking, out loud, a little bit about how those comments made me, as a non-white woman, feel.

"Gonna be frank; that's the sort of thing, when growing up, I would have accepted and internalised. Now learning that it's okay to get angry."

And this is the point. The labelling on this moisturiser is actively harmful, and not simply offensive (for a good distinction between the two, please see Scott Madin’s blog post)

It is harmful because it positions ‘dark skin’ as abnormal in a culture where racism is still a very real and potent thing. This kind of labelling, subtle as it is, and in a world full of similar instances of labelling, sticks to people’s minds. It sticks to the minds of those who are supposedly “normal”, and it sticks to those that it is making “abnormal”.

It took me a long time to realise that growing up, yes, I internalised the message that I was not normal. And, that is not okay.

What’s worse though, is even despite this, the barrage of comments I’ve seen and dealt with today, to the the effect of “I’m sure they didn’t mean it like *that*, though” or “They don’t intend to offend anyone”, or “It’s the same as labelling ‘normal to dry hair!'” and so on. And on. And on.

After a while, I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry, because those are EXACTLY the kind of voices that have talked me down my whole life. The voices that have told me that any thought I had of being hurt by feeling ‘othered’ were just silly. Even if I was hurt by what I took to be implicit racism, it just was my fault for being offended, or something. (Of course, invariably, these voices have come from various ‘well-meaning’ white friends.)

The truth is, I’m angry. I’m angry at all the years I spent, my entire teenagerhood and beyond, feeling apologetic about my skin colour. Feeling as though I have done something wrong by not being white. Really. In a way, I actually believed that for far too long.

I remember my first day of school in the UK (I joined a couple of weeks or so late, after having spent kindergarten in Germany), walking into a class, as the only non-white child, and a handful of kids came up to me and inspected me. “Whoa, you’re cool, you’ve been tanning!” said one boy. “No, don’t be stupid, she’s just not like us.” said a girl (she may have said something worse, actually, but this is how I remember it.)

Or the few times, when, as a young teen exploring makeup for the first time, I went up to a beauty counter and asked, tentatively, if there were any foundations or concealers for me, and I would get a certain look from the assistant, and some awkward comment, and then I’d feel really apologetic – and embarassed – about not being white.

Or plasters/band-aids. (It took me a long time to figure out, actually, that these were supposed to be skin-coloured for white people. Until my mid-teens I thought that was ‘just the colour that plasters/band-aids are’.)

Or ‘nude’ tights.

Or, all the countless number of beauty products I know I must have seen which convey the same message as Dove’s lotion, because, for the first few seconds of looking at that picture by Laura, I saw nothing out of the ordinary; (Just like those who, even after having it pointed out to them, refuse to see anything wrong.)

All of this, of course, is not even counting all the overt instances of racism. That’s a whole other topic. But, I am angry and hurt at all of the various ways I have been told by the dominant culture, in ways both explicit and implicit, that my skin colour has not fit ‘normal’. That I do not belong.

This is the culture to which Dove’s monumentally unthoughtful wording is contributing. No, I don’t think they meant it, but intention is beyond the point here. Casual racism – a culture of ‘othering’ non-white people – perpetuates itself in insidious ways, when we do not expect it. The words we use matter.

Meanwhile, Dove (in the US, at least, I think?) are trying to promote their ‘Movement of Self-Esteem’. Well, I can tell you, Dove, from my own direct experience, that things exactly like this are what contributed to my own lack of self-esteem growing up. All I wanted as a kid – as we all do – is to fit in, and subtle things like this, adding up, take away from the ability of any non-white person to do so. The 21st century, in multicultural Britain, is not the place to still be equating “white” to “normal”.

I almost did not write this. I’ve felt apologetic about it to an extent where even bringing up my skin colour, and how angry all those experiences have made me, has felt uncomfortable for me. Writing this is uncomfortable for me. I don’t like drawing attention to it, even when it is on my own terms. I am trying very hard to get over that. (Thank you to George for encouraging me to write this. Also, a thank you to Emily, who, in my recent letter series with her about gender, noted my discomfort with talking about race, and really brought it to light for me. And, a big thank you, of course, to Laura, for having pointed this out in the first place.)

Now, while many people have, thankfully, also reached out to Dove via their Twitter and Facebook, Dove have yet to respond, even though they’ve been tweeting about their current ‘Movement for Self-Esteem’ nonetheless, ignoring all tweets about the moisturiser.  I hope they do respond.

Edit 1: Ah, it looks as though Dove have responded, with this general, acknowledging tweet, so far. Let’s hope more comes of this.

Edit 2: A few people have brought up the fact that the other lotion in this range is for ‘Fair to Normal Skin‘, as though this somehow invalidates the point I am making regarding what Dove – and, indeed, western culture – considers to be ‘normal.’ The point still stands; they should not be making assertions as to what is ‘normal’ for a skin tone, and what is not. Here, I have expanded upon how, as someone with dark skin, this makes me feel, in a culture where the notion that “white” equals “normal” is widespread. Again, the words and signifiers we use matter. This post is all about implicit racism perpetuated through words. Even by labelling the lotions ‘Fair to Normal Skin’ and ‘Normal to Dark Skin’, they are normalising skin that is white. Normal is a harmful term to use, where they could have said “Medium”, or similar. I cannot personally speak of the experience of someone with very ‘fair’ skin, but for those people with fair skin who have got in touch to say that they’re not offended,  I would like to reiterate: Just because something does not offend you, it does not mean it is not harmful when viewed in wider cultural context.

Also, because its been brought up, there is a point to be made here regarding how skin colour is perceived from a ‘fashion’ perspective – and how fashion dictates sometimes that white people’s skin should be paler, and sometimes it should be tanned, but I’m feeling weary of having to explain this. So, I will leave this link here to illustrate how this particular fluctuating aesthetic trend has nothing to do with race, and does not mean that racism does not exist.

Edit 3: Dove has posted a full response, which you can see in the comments below. Also, I posted an update to this post here.

 

29 Responses to “On Why Dove’s Moisturiser for ‘Normal to Dark Skin’ is Harmful to Self-Esteem”

  1. Anil Dash says:

    Thank you for your wonderful post, and for being brave enough to share your story. 

    • Mitu says:

      Thank you, Anil, for your wonderful words of support. <3

    • Guest says:

       This is great, thank you for writing it! As a white woman, I’ve never come into a situation like this personally, and not having many friends from different cultures, I never really heard about it growing up. It’s really nice to see a women such as yourself standing up for the girls who shouldn’t be seeing things like this on something as mundane as skin toner, b/c it really would contribute to a horrible lack of self-esteem… there is no such thing as a “normal” skin colour, and no one, especially a company like Dove that has a big campaign on about “loving your own body” targeted at women.. .so if a girl goes into a store and grabs a Dove product thinking, “it’s designed for me” and see’s that kind of label?! It’s utterly ridiculous that they havn’t apologized and retracted it already, even if they “didn’t mean it” it’s still racist and shouldn’t be over-looked. Thanks again for writing this.

      • Guest says:

         Also, meant to post this as a comment to the actual blog post, not in reply to the comment! :)

  2. Emma Lyskava says:

    Very articulate and well written. Despite your discomfort you get your point across very well. Glad to see that they responded. Hopefully they’ll change their labeling and actually practice what they preach about this ‘movement for self-esteem’.

  3. justme8 says:

    I agree with you completely, it is wrong. I have to tell you I am a Canadian white girl who wishes she could have skin as beautiful as yours. Maybe if they had worded it “for medium to dark skin tone” it would have been better. No one is normal and if you look at the population of the world us white people really are the minority not the normal majority. Realistically it should say pail to normal skin tones (dark being the normal). But western society is so use to thinking white is normal that it probably wouldn’t get it. Loved the article!

  4. Paul says:

    He,  I have worked for Unilever as a productmanager. The company that makes Dove.  Try  sending it to the current ceo paul.polman@unilever.com. He is a stand-up guy and i can’t imagine he would be pleased with this.

  5. clocas says:

    Thank you for writing. This is so important and I am so glad to hear your voice.

  6. My god, I think I love you. Don’t be apologetic. Be bold.

    If you don’t like the rules of the game. Don’t play by them. Make your own rules and play by those. So I commend you.

    As a British woman, I think you can admire this Winston Churchill quote, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

    • Mitu says:

      Most people do not realise that they are playing by the rules, which is the most saddening part of all. Thank you for your support. :)

  7. Bart says:

    I agree with your sentiments, but it seems like having labels like these be more sensitive doesn’t solve the larger problems you’ve described throughout your life (though I do think they should be corrected). I’m gay and I was “different” throughout my childhood and teenage years, and besides maybe with the categorization of some toys as being gender-specific, my main problem wasn’t labels, it was because I wasn’t normal, I was treated as being abnormal, rather than as unique or special in a good way.

    Normal is supposed to just mean “most common”, but the less common shouldn’t be a cause for rejection. Supposed we change all these racist labels, what about the kid with the bigger nose than he rest of his classmates, the girl whose body changes faster than other girls, the short kid in class. Instead of trying to fit more things under the umbrella of normal, we should teach kids from a much earlier age to be tolerant of each other’s differences. A young kid should be able to internalize that they’re different from their peers in certain aspects and be OK with that and not feel any pressure (external or internal) to conform.

  8. Mscoxenglish says:

    An excellent article, made all the more powerful by the careful wording used, the recognition that your comments would provoke a barrage of comments and the personal anecdotes used. You must not feel uncomfortable about speaking out about how you are made to feel by others’ unwitting use of language. I have spent many years in the classroom requiring my pupils to consider what they mean whenever they use the word normal and indeed may other terms. It is always heartening when many of them “get it” What is distressing is when the children I might be playing devil’s advocate on behalf of say “it doesn’t matter or “it doesn’t bother me” when it does matter and it does bother them. Sometimes it is necessary to make a fuss.

    As people have said If Dove is an ethical company someone will do more than look into e matter.

    • Mitu says:

      This is such an amazing, encouraging comment, and I feel so glad to have received it. Thank you. I am so, SO heartened to hear that you get your pupils to question what they mean when they say ‘normal’. Many adults don’t even get there. I commend your work, thank you. I would have loved to have had a teacher like yourself. :)

  9. Emily says:

    Great article, Mitu. May I please share this picture and article on Pinterest?

    • Mitu says:

      Hi Emily, my apologies in getting to this reply so late. If its not *too* late, I’m more than happy for you to share on Pinterest. :) Thank you.

  10. Anil2 says:

    i love you mitu, are you free for a coffee or beer? i have dark skin :)

  11. Maggie says:

    Mitu, thank you for putting yourself out there & writing about this.  Even as a white woman who benefits from Privilege in many forms, it’s still very distressing to see the response to this. 

    I idly nosed around the US Amazon for Dove tanning products, and it seems that many were labeled for fair, medium, or dark tones.  One wonders why they couldn’t simply have applied that wording to any tanning product – or why they decided on different wording for some products (or in some places? Unclear) at all.

  12. Tori says:

    This is such a fantastic article. As someone who is VERY pale (and yet, I don’t consider myself “white”), I’m just as offended by the implications of the “fair to normal” scale as I am by the “normal to dark” scale. You are speaking for ALL of us. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  13. skeletorfonze says:

    a couple of things stand out to me in this post.

    firstly, the word ‘normal’ is in this context correct. it doesn’t mean normal as in ‘this is ok/acceptable’, it means that in a western population the vast majority of people will have a skin colour in this range. It is not trying to make a moral judgment of what is good and bad!

    However, if you wish to play this game, then why not notice that normal also equates quite nicely with average? and instead of feeling abnormal, you can feel ‘special’? Anyway, this is a side point.

    Secondly, I grew up in Asia. I spent all my teens years in a predominantly non-white culture and was subjected to the same things you talk about. So I feel uniquely qualified to talk about this topic as I am one of the few white people who know what it is like to live as a minority within a dominant culture that is both alien and different in every way.

    The problem is not the supposed racism within society. Dove absolutely did not mean it in the way you put forward (it would be marketing suicide for a start!) and I very much doubt any rational white person will read that and think it means they are better than you.

    The problem is your own perception of YOUR self worth. Look up internal and external referencing. It is a psychology thing but it explains everything you are talking about here. The bad news is that the damage done to your self esteem (and more importantly your self image) goes deep, but the good news is that it can be fixed with some hard work.

    Good luck.

    Colin

    • barefootwriter says:

      Actually, the problem is the subtle messages, not the blatant ones. We’re exposed to them over and over, and they gradually shape our attitudes without us even realizing it. If you are at all familiar with the implicit association test, you know what I mean. 

      One of my psych profs studies the portrayal of women in ads. Overt sexism doesn’t affect attitudes much. But covert sexism does. No doubt the same occurs with these subtle messages about skin color.

      So yes, we should be worried about things like this. Thankfully, it seems to have been an honest mistake and Dove is already on it.

      And, please, who outside of academic research takes the opposite of normal to be anything but abnormal?

    • Emily says:

      Colin: the vast majority of people in the UK will have blue or brown eyes. Does that make green eyes abnormal? Would you market products in such a way that implies green eyes are abnormal? NO. So why do you, and so many others, feel that it’s appropiate to use the same argument for skin colour?

  14. Dove says:

    Hi Mitu, 
     

    Thank you for your feedback and for sharing your inspiring story. Dove is committed to representing beauty of all ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes. We believe in celebrating real beauty and in raising the self-esteem of women and young girls globally.

    We found out that our European team was already aware of the mistake regarding labelling on Dove Summer Glow Body Lotion bottles. Many of our lotions focus on moisturization as the key benefit and in some cases we label them “normal to dry skin.” The Dove Summer Glow Body Lotion is a gradual self tanner that also moisturizes. It should have been marked as “fair to medium skin” or “medium to dark skin” depending on the skin type it focuses on. In this case, there was an oversight from our team and we accidently combined the phrases. As soon as our teams in Europe discovered this error, they began the process of relabeling the bottles. These will start appearing on shelf this summer. We are also in the process of correcting the language in our other communication vehicles where possible. As always, we appreciate the feedback and support from our community.

  15. Aphrogaga says:

    Great to see a collective outrage, this was also discussed on http://getaperspective.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/dove-labels-skin-tones-fair-normal-and.html

  16. Bridget McArthur says:

    This post opened my eyes!  Thank you. 

  17. Juliedaly1559 says:

    I’m olive skinned an have been bullied all my life. I also can’t wear nude tights or makeup. Racism is not exclusive to a race or culture, its exclusive to ignorant jealous prejudice fools who need to go Bk to school.

  18. John says:

    I understand that the point you are trying to make is that having brown skin is as normal as having white but I have to wonder, If this were a situation in South Asia, where the bottle was labelled normal (as in brown) to fair, would there be such an issue? I doubt it, in fact from my experience, being Asian in the UK has a lot more advantages than being White in Asia. As a skin colour we have different needs to those with white skin, you should be grateful that dove have considered this and catered for if. If anything this bottle proves exactly the opposite to what you are saying.

    The fact we are Asian is an obvious trait that cannot be ignored, in the same way that if someone was wearing glasses we would see that. Unfortunately in a Country that has for generations been white we are not the norm, in the same way that in Asia, white skin is not the norm. Dove is catering for a majority population, not promoting racism.

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