the fetishisation of ethnic minorities

What it means to be 'exotic' in the west

By Gina Kalsi

Fake tan is a product that you cannot escape in the western world. It takes up space on our shelves, dominates social media, and is constantly advertised to convince white women in particular to spice up their appearance.


But whilst celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Ariana Grande and Molly-Mae Hague use fake tan to keep up their ‘sun-kissed goddess’ persona, ethnic minorities are being told to ‘stay out of the sun’ and bleach their natural skin to become lighter. This ultimately begs the question- why do the beauty standards differ depending on ethnicity and ‘race’?


White privilege is the answer.


Whilst white privilege grants white individuals the right to tan without a stigma, it simultaneously demonises darker complexions on people of colour. The general rule is that you can be tanned, but not too dark. Which obviously leads to the idea that being white equals the epitome of beauty; an idea I once held as a child.


My personal struggle with Eurocentric beauty ideals and ethnicity trends dates back to my childhood, in the early 2000’s, when looking ‘white’ enabled access to the upmost of compliments from others. I distinctly remember walking to primary school with my mother, and I just stopped to look at her and said: “Mummy… I want to be white like the other girls.”


I did not have straight hair, fair skin and light eyes like the other girls. I am mixed race, which means that I have curly hair that would always tangle, tanned skin, and dark brown eyes.


I was different, and I knew it.


This continued through to my adolescent years.

“You are so hairy.”

“Your hair is so thick and curly. Does the curtain match the drapes?”

“You might want to thread those bushy eyebrows.”


For years I felt that Asian heritage was disabling me from being attractive and isolating me from the world of self-fulfilment. But things have drastically changed.


The comments that white individuals would make on my body turned from negative to positive, surprisingly. I now go to the supermarket and I get greeted with:


‘Wow, I love your hair. I wish I had hair like yours; it’s so thick and gorgeous!”

“You have beautiful olive skin.”

“You’re so pretty. Where are you from?”


Whilst these comments sound harmless and complimentary, they illustrate the bigger problem at hand; the fetishisation of ethnic minorities. We are put on a pedestal like a rare museum artefact; placed under judgement by the white gaze (namely male). I used to enjoy being showered in these ‘compliments’ from others after feeling like an outcast for so many years. But then I realised that these compliments are temporary as when the next trend reveals itself, our beauty timer is up.


My bushy brows, sun-kissed skin, and curly hair are sold as commodities to be consumed by those who possess and use their white privilege to shape-shift to the latest trend. They receive all of the benefits of having these features without any of the struggle. And when they’re done with being ‘exotic’ they can simply bin my race; in-keeping with our throw-away society.


White privilege allows its members to become invisible, meaning that they can alter themselves with ease and it is not seen as controversial or unheard of. While ethnic minorities stand out, white people use their talent of camouflage to blend in.


“To be white is to be human; to be white is universal. I only know this because I am not.” - Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.

With the combination of fake tan being widely accepted and welcomed in the West, this leads to an understanding that white individuals can take the positive aspects a race and utilise it to their benefit. The sexualisation of non-white features in advertising campaigns has risen in recent years in order to drive up profit. Is this all we are for capitalist society? The master copy for an endless supply of others who want to look like us?


Non-white individuals cannot change who they are. They cannot simply wash away their skin colour or their features which make them who they are. Instead, they are urged to become paler to fit into the idealistic beauty standard set by the West. This is seen with the skin whitening practices which are seen as relatively normal in places like Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. It is mainly women who are pressured to use this ‘beauty hack’


The deeply-rooted colourism means that individuals with darker skin tones are labelled ‘ugly’ and ‘unattractive’ by their own family members.


This ultimately leads to brands like Unilever capitalising on racism by creating Fair & Lovely; a face cream that sells the dream of light, beautiful skin. Whilst they claim it is not a skin bleaching cream, it still perpetuates the notion that ‘fair’ and ‘beautiful’ are exchangeable words. Synonyms.


Whilst Unilever have recently changed Fair & Lovely to Glow & Lovely, this step forward has happened too little too late. They changed the name in 2020 after the death of George Floyd to become more ‘inclusive’ and ‘progressive’. Is this what it takes? A black man being brutally murdered because of the colour of his skin for the world to listen?


Individuals should be exactly that. Individual. We should be respectful and loving of our natural skin colours, and not place our self-satisfaction and self-love in the hands of capitalism. But it is easier said than done for people of colour. They are demonised for embracing their skin, and then judged for bleaching it to fit in.


Society will rear its ugly head by setting unrealistic beauty standards of one’s skin. Something that cannot and should not be changed.


Nobody should seek beauty by striving to look racially ambiguous.

My mixed-race heritage is your trend. But it is my whole life.