When Tan France was nine, he stole his cousin’s skin bleaching cream. It stung, like sunburn, so he didn’t use it for long. But when he was older, in his mid-teens, he decided to have another go.
The shame and guilt that Queer Eye’s resident fashion expert feels about his youthful pursuit of lighter skin is the ostensible motive behind Tan France: Beauty and the Bleach (BBC Two), a celebrity-odyssey documentary that starts, as is now custom, with the obligatory suitcase-packing shot. The Doncaster-raised stylist is leaving his deluxe Utah home and returning to “musty-fusty” old England, to reckon with his feelings about skin bleaching and investigate the wider problem of colourism: the idea that fairer complexions are favoured in black and Asian communities, as well as society at large. Yet France’s journeys – literal and metaphorical – turn out to be far from straightforward.
First, France hears from those affected by colourism. A magnetically warm and sensitive interviewer, he talks to Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, who recalls being told she was “too dark chocolate” by a boyfriend’s grandmother, and sits down with the actor Bunmi Mojekwu, who reads out some of the shocking Twitter abuse she received while playing Mercy on EastEnders – all of it from black users. During a school visit, he comes over like a dream teacher – funny, excitable, down to earth – bonding with the children over the scourge of “aunties”, female elders who he suggests may be the modern-day gatekeepers of colourism.
But exactly why these older women are so preoccupied with skin tone is never explained. Colourism is a deeply entrenched issue with a complicated past – in other words, not something easily served up by an hour-long entertainment documentary. There are attempts to delve deeper: France speaks to a professor about how colonialism and the caste system in India contributed to colourism, but it’s a brief and unclear history lesson. At one point, he observes that skin-lightening treatments are hugely popular in east Asia, but provides no further insight on the phenomenon.
Whatever the precise mechanics behind contemporary colourism, it is clearly a topic worth covering: not only for the black and Asian viewers who have been harmed by such prejudice, but also for white audiences who may have little knowledge of its pressures. Yet as the show progresses, it becomes obvious that the subject under discussion doesn’t quite chime with France’s own experiences. You get the impression that experiences of colourism don’t fully explain why he hasn’t felt able to return to Doncaster town centre for 20 years.
The crux of the matter is teed up with a small but heart-rending detail: in 1988, as a five-year-old, France walked to school by himself for the first time; he was chased down and beaten by a group of white men. He didn’t tell his parents, fearing he would be blamed for not running away fast enough.
The image of this tiny boy being attacked by adult men is utterly appalling – and France is distraught as he recalls it. It was that incident, and others like it, that made him desperate to have lighter skin, he explains: bleaching was a form of self-protection, an attempt to disguise his race in order to avoid violence in the street. It’s also the reason why he finds it impossible to return to Doncaster, zooming straight past the motorway exit he was supposed to turn off at.
Usually, this kind of issue-based documentary reaches for a redemption narrative – or at least a glimmer of hope – to end on. France’s experiences do not lend themselves to such a trajectory: he remains severely traumatised by the racism he endured, and doesn’t live in the UK any more because of it. That his testimony seems so shocking is also telling: if these stories were told more often, perhaps Britain would no longer be able to stubbornly avoid atoning for its brutally racist past.
Instead of detouring down that road, the show reverts back to its original topic: colourism and how it manifests in the fashion industry. France finds that influential black editors, such as British Vogue’s Edward Enninful, are slowly improving prospects for darker-skinned models. It provides the tiniest hint of progress required to wrap things up, but it’s probably not the part of this show that will stick with you. As a survey of colourism, Beauty and the Bleach feels somewhat incomplete. As an evocation of the racist trauma this country has bestowed on so many, it is both damning and completely devastating.