“Your skin is too dark.” 1950’s Racial Advertising

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In America, the perennial quest for beauty is an expensive one.

Every year, women spend billions of dollars in exchange for beautiful hair, luxurious eye lashes, and smooth, silky skin. Still, many of our culture’s most common beauty procedures were virtually nonexistent a century ago. The truth is, many of our expectations of feminine beauty were shaped in large part by modern advertisers. We’ve tracked the history behind some of the most common “flaws” that besiege the modern woman and the surprising stories behind their “cures.”

During the late-19th century and early-20th century, skin lightening became popular with black women. Skin bleaching was seen as more than a beauty ritual — it was a symbolic way to progress in a prejudiced society, where lighter-skinned black people encountered comparatively better treatment. Advertisers exploited those prejudices in the beauty industry, promising women that they could “occupy more positions socially and commercially” marry better, “get along better” and be more beautiful with lighter skin. In this 1944 ad, lighter skin is equated with “lovelier” skin:

Advertisement for Nadinola bleaching cream, 'for lovelier lighter skin,' New York, New York, 1944. (Photo by Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The actual products were seriously dangerous: Most contained the chemical hydroquinone which is also used to develop photographs. (The chemical has been banned in Australia, the EU, and Japan, but remains legal in the United States)

During the ’60s and ’70s, the skin marketing popularity dipped in the 1970’s as the “Black is Beautiful” movement grew. The movement encouraged black people to embrace their natural features,¬†rather than attempt to conform to white beauty norms. Cosmetic companies quickly softened their rhetoric, and the phrase “skin lightening” was changed to the somewhat more innocuous term “skin brightening.” The smiling 1962 ad below promises bright, light skin even on the rainiest day while neglecting to mention the possible side effect of mercury poisoning.¬† Today, skin lightening continues to be practiced around the world, with particular popularity in Africa, India and Pakistan. The annual global market is expected to reach $10 billion by 2016, though many of the products come with serious health risks.