Queer Eye's Tan France has opened up about his experience with skin bleaching and colourism in a new BBC documentary, Beauty and the Bleach. In the special episode, which airs on BBC Two at 9pm on 27 April, the TV presenter and fashion icon retraces his roots as he uncovers what drove him to bleach his skin, and why others still do so today.
"Racism is when you are treated differently by another race," he tells Cosmopolitan UK. "[But] with colourism, you are treated negatively based on your shade of skin within the community that you represent." Sharing his own experience with colourism, the TV presenter recalls how comments about skin colour from family members while he was growing up, as well as bullying by his peers, prompted him to bleach his skin for the first time at just nine years old.
"I felt so much pressure to bleach my skin from such a young age. Honestly, if I could have bleached my skin at four or five years old, and if I had the access to do it, I probably would've done it," he says. "I only got access to bleaching cream when I was nine, when I stole bleaching cream from my cousin, and I felt like I needed to do it to lighten up as much as possible."
Describing what the skin bleaching cream felt like, the now 39-year-old tells us, "it felt like sunburn and it stung so much. I only bleached for a few days and then finally, I just couldn't take the discomfort anymore." But a few years later, France sadly found himself resorting to skin bleaching once more following a disheartening experience with online dating.
"I did it again when I was 16," he says. "At that point I wanted to be lighter skinned because I thought that was the only way I was gonna be able to date. I'd been on a dating website for months, without anyone ever responding to a message [and kept seeing] comments below people's profiles saying: 'No Asians'."
After giving skin bleaching another go, France says that the emotional toll of using the lightening cream hit harder than the physical one he'd experienced previously. "I felt such shame and disgust that I had to resort to such measures to be perceived as desirable for people to want to date me," he admits. "I [would] have been willing to put up with the [physical] kind of pain, but the torture was more mental."
Looking back, the Queer Eye presenter wishes he could teach his younger self how to love the skin he's in. It's one of the reasons he decided to make the Beauty and the Bleach documentary, particularly after welcoming his own son last year and feeling compelled to make a change within his community. "I wanted my son to never experience what I experienced when I was a kid. I wanted him to understand that his dad had done all he could to encourage people to see any shade of skin as worthy of love and worthy of respect," he says.
"I'm hoping that that's what we achieved with this documentary," he adds, noting that working on the show also gave him the opportunity to lay some of his own demons to rest. "I wanted to find out why I bleached my skin, I wanted to understand why I felt so ashamed of my skin colour when I was younger, and hopefully negate some of those feelings too."
"I wish I could tell that nine-year-old me that I should be so proud of my skin colour. It represents who my people are, what my culture is, where we've come from. I didn't understand any of that at the age of nine," France went on, pointing out that for children growing up today, social media has exacerbated colourism.
"[With social media's filters] it's literally a swipe and then you are almost completely changing yourself. And a lot of it is changing skin tone," he explains. "I think that is a really, really damaging part of social media. The fact that within one touch you are changing your ethnicity, suggesting that you are more attractive if you are lighter-skinned."
Yet, France hopes that by speaking out about his story, he can help challenge – and break down – the narrative that lighter skin is more desirable. "For those of you who have bleached, or for those of you who are younger and who've thought of bleaching. I promise you, I don't judge you for it. I understand all too well," he says. But, "I’d like to encourage you to really understand why you think it's important to bleach."
He goes on, "You won't feel that way when you are a little older, a little wiser. I promise you'll realise that there was never a need to change. Your skin colour is gorgeous."
Tan France's Beauty and the Bleach is on BBC Two on 27 April at 9pm, and will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer afterwards. And, to hear more about his experience, watch the video above.
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