The beauty industry is constantly changing, but what has remained is the obsession with lighter skin.
“Skin bleaching,” a trend that has been glorified, especially in Jamaica and certain parts of Africa, is also pretty popular here in the states.
But is really just a trend? Or is there more to it?
“Whiteness” is considered as “pure,” by many, and the lighter the better. Lighter skin has always been associated with money and status. However, this risky trend didn’t just happen overnight, or is something that was introduced by celebrities, who are advertising it now. It’s something that has been around for a long time, and this might come as a shock, but the skin bleaching process has its roots in Europe.
As light as Snow White?
In the 18th century, European women decided to paint their faces using creams and loose makeup powders that contained lead—yes, the compound found in walls. Having lighter skin was considered superb, and of status and not to be mistaken with the peasants who worked in the sun. The idea was to be as light, as Snow White.
Rumor has it that celebrities, such as Nikki Minaj, Beyonce, Rihanna, and Lil’Kim are supporters of lighter skin. Rapper Lil Kim, born as Kimberly Jones, has never admitted to those claims, however, in various interviews about her plastic surgeries she admitted to suffer from body dysmorphia (BDD). This is “a mental disorder characterized by the obsessive idea that some aspect of one’s own body part or appearance is severely flawed and therefore warrants exceptional measures to hide or fix one’s dysmorphic part on one’s figure.”
“I have low self-esteem and always have,” she said in an interview. “Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking… that left me thinking ‘how can I compete with that?’ Being a regular Black girl wasn’t good enough.”
Is this what’s causing Black women to bleach their skin?
What is ‘colorism’?
According to the Association of Black Psychologists, “colorism” which means “the preference for lighter skin” can affect the self-esteem of an individual and the perception of beauty, as well as economic opportunities.”
Aware of this dilemma, is the skin care and cosmetic industry. It is a billion dollar industry that is taking advantage of Black women who obsess about lighter skin.
“The skin-lightening phenomenon is a nuanced one,” said Shingi Mtero, a lecturer at Rhodes University in South Africa, who teaches a course on the politics of skin bleaching. “Whiteness has been elevated and presented as a universal standard of progress. When people say it’s about Whiteness, it’s not necessarily to physically be White, it’s about wanting to access things White people have easy access to—privileges, economic and social status.”
Many Black women think it will give them access to things otherwise restricted if they aren’t White, such as power. Being White or light-skinned still has social capital in post-colonial Africa.
Socialite Blac Chyna, who’s real name is Angela Renee White, received some heat last November, after announcing she will launch her skin lightening cream in Nigeria, for $250 a jar.
Eight out of 10 women in Nigeria use skin lightening creams, the world’s highest percentage, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Statistics from 2011 showed that 40 percent of African women bleach their skin. Some countries show an even higher percentage. Fifty-nine percent in Togo, 35 percent in South Africa, 27 percent in Senegal and 25 percent in Mali.
For centuries, lighter skin was promoted as being more attractive – except in the ‘90s when tanned and sun kissed skin was favored – until it was said too much tanning causes skin cancer. Fair skin is in again. However, the use of skin bleaching products is also considered as “highly addictive” that once stopped, the person can get even darker than before.
Nevertheless, bleaching creams are not without risk either. It’s shocking to see how many Black women feel the need to change their appearance so drastically they would ignore the health risks involved with skin bleaching. The active ingredients found in skin bleaching creams, hydroquinone and corticosteroids (also known as hydrocortisone) can be cancerous, as well as cause liver and kidney damage, skin rashes, and scarring. The other ingredient, mercury, can also cause problems like skin thinning, blisters, and acne.
The possible side effects can include:
Skin irritation and inflammation (redness and swelling)
A burning or stinging sensation
Itchy and flaky skin
Even worse, long time use can cause:
Skin can turn darker than before or too light
thinning of the skin
visible blood vessels in the skin
kidney, liver or nerve damage
abnormalities in a newborn baby (if used during pregnancy)
Since skin bleaching creams received some controversy in the past, the manufacturers—who are either from Asia, the United States, or Europe—were forced to rename the labeling to “skin lightening cream” for hyper-pigmentation or dark spots. Interesting enough, the market for bleaching creams in parts of Africa—such as Senegal and Nigeria—is in high demand. However, many countries including Nigeria, claim to have banned the use of harsh chemicals found in bleaching creams. The popular skin lightening cream “Whitenicious” invented by Cameroonian singer Dencia, who was born as Reprudencia Sonkey, states that none of those active ingredients are present in the cream.
In Jamaica, however, that racism comes from men towards women, although many men bleach their skin as well, which they don’t call “bleaching” or “lightening” but they call it “browning.” Jamaican dancehall artist Spice, whose birth name is Grace Latoya Hamilton doesn’t see eye to eye with fellow rapper Vybz Kartel when it comes to skin bleaching.
Jamaican singer shares views
In her latest release “Black Hypocrisy” she tackles on the prejudice she’s dealing with from other Blacks, especially men who favor “Brown skin” in her home, Jamaica. In the song, she shares her experience growing up, she told VH1 in an interview that she “was told [she] would reach further if the color of her skin was lighter” and that she “was made to feel inferior because society said brown girls look prettier.”
Vybz Kartel on the other hand is no stranger to skin lightening and mentioned this process in various of his lyrics, including praising Michael Jackson who was rumored to use skin bleaching creams to even out his skin tone. Kartel compared skin bleaching to the tanning White people do, but has now stopped using the creams himself. He said he wanted to show off his tattoos, since they look better on lighter skin.
Many Black women think that any man, no matter if he’s Black or White, prefers a White woman over a dark-skinned one. And it’s not just men who favor that ideology, it’s social media and the entertainment industry. Celebrities like Beyonce who advertise for L’Oreal could be the poster child for Caucasian advertising. More and more Black women wear lighter colored contacts, as well as blonde, straight hair, it’s not so much about Black- or Whiteness but more so about acceptance and status in society.
Two terms that come to mind are “Eurocentrism” which is the ideology to bring European worldviews to the western countries (such as colonialism and imperialism) those worldviews also include the ideology of favoring lighter skin, which leads to the term “colorism.”
It’s also to be said, the urge for lighter skin comes from the days of slavery. When darker-skinned slaves were forced to work in the fields under the hot sun, but lighter-skinned slaves were brought inside for lighter work. It’s not that those slaves had an easier life, most of them got raped by their masters, to keep the slave trade going.
However, slaves in the field thought that lighter-skinned slaves were preferred because they were better. It’s intertwined with what European cultures brought west but also the perception of what “they” think is beautiful, which has always been associated with White skin. To be Caucasian was considered “beautiful.” With this, the subconscious White ideology ingrained itself even more so in the minds of many Black people, not just women. It’s not just racism from the White community, but more so within the Black community.
More women have come forward to go back to their roots and rock their natural hair and skin color to highlight the hashtags BlackIsBeautiful.
On the other hand, many Black women deny the fact that they are using skin bleaching products, and say those products are “skin lightening” creams, which are different. Dencia and Blac Chyna make the same claims regarding their skin lightening creams, and say it helped them get rid of hyperpigmentation and dark spots and helped them even out their skin tone, by giving them brighter complexions, but not through bleaching.
But who is to blame?
It’s easier to point fingers, when the roots lie much deeper than that. It’s part history, it’s mainstream racism, and the beauty standards praised and set by social media. But it’s also not just a beauty trend, it’s altering someone’s identity and genetic code to feel the need to be more accepted, and those are false beliefs based on a pattern deeply ingrained in current times and societies. It needs to be broken.