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.