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How Do Face Filters Promote Colourism?

Writer Zeynab Mohamed investigates


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“Light enough.” Uttered mindlessly, an unwelcome evaluation by a white friend. I had passed an unspoken test. The subtext palpable: The lighter your complexion = the more attractive you were deemed. My 14-year old self awkwardly smiled, to conceal the shame of accepting the compliment and distress of being slapped by the harshness of oppression. Though you don’t have to search far and wide to find instances of colourism in everyday life.

Colourism, by definition, is a form of racial discrimination based on the shade of an individual's skin tone, typically favouring lighter skin.The term was first coined by Alice Walker to describe the prejudice against Black people with darker skin tones. Colourism is rife within the POC communities. For instance, a viral TikTok challenge, popular in India, saw users take a clip from a song called “Why This Kolaveri Di”, which featured the lyrics “white girl skin” with a “black heart”. In the videos, the users darken their skin tone, whilst expressing sadness. Then switch back to their normal complexion, which was lighter and expressed happiness. It caused a huge backlash, resulting in TikTok rightfully taking down the videos.

Social media has certainly made its mark in perpetuating colourist ideals. Specifically, “beautifying” filters, which insidiously cement an endless cycle of anti-Blackness. I watched how my skin tone changed with every filter, always lighter never darker. With increased time spent on social media, only working to further strengthen colourism in our world.

The majority of beautifying filters have one common factor: A lighter complexion. In 2017, FaceApp’s founder Yarolslav Goncharov apologised after the inclusion of a filter that worked to lighten skin on the app, named “hot”. With a quick name change, the issue seemed to almost evaporate without investigating the real problem at hand – the lightening of the skin.


It’s not only FaceApp, but Snapchat and Instagram also have similar beautifying filters that lighten the complexion of your skin. The question is: What are social media platforms doing to rectify the problem? While frightening to comprehend, the reality is that face filters are influencing tweaks to our actual appearances. Larger eyes? Raised cheekbones? Fuller lips? What is there to prevent taking the “perfecting” process to the level of lightening skin?

Skin bleaching isn’t something new, it has been around for decades. The World Health Organisation recently reported that 77% of Nigerian women reported using skin-lightening products regularly – the world’s highest percentage. That’s not to say individuals in the western world have not taken to the world of skin lightening products; In 2018, Southwark council seized over 2900 skin-whitening products. And, it is estimated that the skin whitening industry will be worth over $24 billions of dollars in the next 7 years.

With vague regulation on the business of skin lightening products, sellers on social platforms such as Instagram, are able to manipulate the language they use. Using words such as “brighter” and “clearer” to avoid being taken down. Yet some accounts are bold enough to use hashtags such as #skinwhitening”, like the page @whiteningessence, which claims to sell the number one skin whitening products. How sinister that a quick tag search brings up multiple accounts selling everything from creams, pills and even drips. All promising lighter skin in a matter of weeks.

It’s easy to dismiss the role beauty filters play in promoting colourism and the dangerous use of skin lightening products. Over lockdown, not only was social media usage significantly increased, we saw an influx of beauty filters. As a Black woman, it’s not difficult to notice that the majority of filters worked to lighten my darker complexion. Cosmetic doctor Tijion Esho referred to the increasing trend of patients turning to him with filtered selfies as a reference for cosmetic procedures as “Snapchat dysmorphia”.

If beauty filters are in fact, determining beauty standards, it’s wild to think of the immense triggering effect. On the surface a flower crown filter may appear like totally harmless, innocuous fun. And yet, it can drive home a toxic belief that a person’s worth is based on their skin tone. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we need to speak out about such instances that don’t necessarily “appear” discriminatory. The “quiet” racism, in other words.

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