Colorism refers to how lighter shades of skin color and white physical features are valued more than darker ones within racial groups. People with lighter skin experience better life chances and are looked upon more favorably than people with darker skin. Women around the world also value lighter skin for a variety of reasons and may take part in reconstructive surgery or use skin bleaching creams to attempt to get the look they feel is attractive.

Skin color stratification refers to how resources such as income and status are distributed unequally according to skin color. Those with lighter skin more often have higher incomes, have jobs, and marry. The United States and portions of Latin America are said to be a pigmentocracy where people of color hold different statuses according to skin color. This favoring of lighter skin is termed “colorism.” Across the world, colorism varies in origin. Individual countries have their own histories and contemporary versions. With globalism, the market for skin lightening products has expanded throughout the world. In the United States, a study by Herskovits in the 1920s showed that lighter skin was appreciated within the black community because it was associated with higher class and beauty. Skin bleaching and hair straightening products became popular at this time.

Due to the influence of the global market, as well as country-specific beauty standards and Bollywood and Hollywood, there is now a global color hierarchy in which lighter skin is prized and sought after through skin lighteners. These products can contribute to health complications related to the brain and skin. Women in certain countries, such as Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and India may feel social pressures to use skin lighteners and sometimes get eyelid surgery. This also occurs in certain countries in Africa. One study showed that Tanzanian women had a wide range of reasons to use the products, such as treating acne, skin softening, evening out skin tone, and being attractive and looking more white.

In the United States there are patterns of favoritism and better treatment for lighter skin group members in black and Latino communities. For example, darker-skinned girls in school are more apt to receive suspensions than lighter-skinned girls. Researchers have identified a whole array of impacts on life opportunities differentiated by skin color. For example, there is a pattern that shows lighter-skinned Latinos attaining higher levels of education.

Wanting to have lighter skin does not necessarily mean wanting to be white. In terms of social opportunities for women, looking at the intersection of racism and sexism is useful in the study of colorism and how resources are distributed by skin color.