Personal preferences. Individual lifestyle choices. Freedom… Those are some of the things people call upon to explain and justify their indifference about the things other people do. When we talk about something like skin bleaching around the world, they say it’s no different than pale people getting tans. Well, they’re right about that. Tanning and bleaching are very similar in that both can be deadly, especially for those who can’t afford vetted, high-quality bleaches. Of course most people survive these practices, but not without long-term damage to their skin and overall health. There’s also the literal cost of skin bleaching. People continue to exploit colorism and racism for profit. So, I ask: Fair skin at what cost?
Harmful Effects of Skin Bleaching
The source of danger when tanning, of course, is overexposure to UV rays. The source of danger when bleaching is overexposure to certain chemicals.
Throughout history, among different groups of people, and in various places around the globe, people have created a myriad of concoctions that supposedly lighten the skin. In Europe, certain whitening cosmetics once contained white lead which could cause symptoms as serious as blindness or paralysis (Blay, 2011, p. 21). In addition to lead, many skin whiteners around the world use corticosteroids, hydroquinone, and mercury. Extended exposure to these chemicals (like lathering it on one’s skin on a daily basis) can have harmful effects such as neurological damage, kidney disease, ochronosis, eczema, bacterial and fungal infections, skin atrophy, and Cushing’s Syndrome (Glenn, 2008, p. 285).
What’s worse? Once exposed to some of these chemicals, the body forms a type of dependency, making it difficult to stop using the product because of adverse reactions when you do. Afua Hirsch (2012) quotes Dr Fatou Fall, a dermatologist from the Institute of Social Hygiene in Dakar: “Even when they discover the side-effects and want to stop using the creams, they find they cannot stop. It’s only when you stop that the skin changes and begins to become completely burned” (para. 12).
Artificially fair skin is costing people their health, but in many cases it also costs them the very thing they were so desperate to attain—confidence.
You might shrug it off. So what if they want to engage in self-destructive behavior? So what if a few people choose to take the risk of doing permanent damage to themselves?
Well, it’s a whole lot more than a few, and it’s not just “those people.”
Fair Skin has Another Cost
Large numbers of people in every region of the world use some type of skin lightning product. Some countries may not have much use for the stuff, but they’re nonetheless in the business of manufacturing it. The issue of skin bleaching, therefore, is not about “them.” It’s about us.
With the rise of the internet, the world players in the skin bleaching market have become even more connected. Companies have new inroads for marketing and distribution, and consumers have greater access to information and products (Glenn, 2008, p. 283). This is one reason why I’m such an advocate for using the internet as a means of counteracting, the obsession with lighter skin. Hence this blog and others like Dark is Beautiful, which is based in India.
Evelyn Glenn (2008) writes about how skin lightening is “interwoven into the world economic system and its transnational circuits of products, capital, culture, and people” and about the “media and messages, cultural themes and symbols, used to create the desire for skin lightening products” (p. 282). These products are manufactured in some countries and exported or smuggled into others. The media messages are conceived and created by a few individuals and are projected throughout the world. In fact, Distribution of mercury soap has been illegal in the EU since 1989, but it’s manufacture has remained legal as long as the product is exported” (p. 285).
To be blunt, I interpret this type of legislation as race- or ethnicity-based capitalism. If it were merely capitalism, then they would allow the mercury soap to be sold anywhere, including Europe. However, the governments and the manufacturers in those countries know the dangers of mercury and want to protect their own people, but are quite willing to make a profit at the expense of people’s health in other nations.
According to Glenn (2008), “the desire for lighter skin and the use of skin bleaches is accelerating in places where modernization and the influence of western capitalism and culture are most prominent” (p. 295).
And so, the new face of imperialism can be seen in magazines, on billboards, and on Movie, TV, and computer screens around the globe. The skin bleaching market is similar to colonialism in that the promotion of white superiority allows a few powerful and wealthy groups to become increasingly wealthy and powerful at the cost of masses of other people.
In 2012, Indians reportedly consumed an estimated 233 tonnes of bleaching products (Rajesh, 2013), and in terms of sheer numbers, Indians make up the largest skin bleaching market. In some African cities, as many as 52-77% of women use skin lighteners. A Synovate market survey in 2004 showed that 50% of respondents in the Philippines reported using skin lighteners. In places like Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea, global surveys report that 20-50% of the of respondents had used skin bleaches and that 20-50% would use more if they could afford it. Mercury laden creams are still widely available in parts of Latin America, and in the U.S. women of all races, including Europeans and whites, have long legacies of skin whitening or lightening. (Glenn, 2008, pp. 284-295). And these indicators probably underestimate the practice of skin bleaching around the globe.
I present this information for people who might’ve thought skin bleaching was an isolated, marginal problem in limited places. It’s not. I reiterate that skin bleaching is a global issue with well-known roots.
The Roots of Skin Bleaching Around the World
One piece of research that shifted the way I think about white supremacy in general and skin bleaching in particular is that the practice actually began in Europe among the Europeans themselves (as opposed to immigrants from Southern nations). According to Dr. Yaba Blay (2011), “much of the history of European aesthetic practices is a history of whitening skin” (p. 20). Because of Queen Elizabeth I’s efforts to make her skin appear ghostly white, nearly transparent, extremely pale skin became known as the “Elizabethan ideal of beauty.” This ideal and practice of skin whitening was carried over to the Americas by female European settlers (p. 21).
This information supports the idea that skin bleaching is an issue that affects everyone. It shows that white supremacy even negatively affects white people. It shows that any ideal of physical beauty is arbitrary, unattainable, and downright foolish. But back to the history of it all.
The most basic and effective propaganda was founded on the dichotomy of white vs. black and light vs. dark, probably because they were and still are viewed as pure opposites in many cultures. Glenn (2008) explains that, “In Southern Africa, colorism is just one of the negative inheritances of European colonialism. The ideology of white supremacy that European colonists brought included the association of blackness with primitiveness, lack of civilization, unrestrained sexuality, pollution, and dirt” (p. 284). This was an effective type of messaging against black people around the world, but also effective for any group of darker skinned or brown people.
In desperate attempts to escape these negative associations, to escape various forms of discrimination, and to escape other concrete forms of oppression, people try to attain “light-skinned priviliege” in various ways, skin bleaching being one of them (p. 282).Blay (2011) lists the most common reasons that Ghanian and Tanzanian women give for using skin lighteners, including:
- to remove blemishes and imperfections and to counteract effects of the sun
- to appear and feel clean
- to appear white, European, and “beautiful”
- to please a partner, grab attention, or attract potential mates
- to impress peers, appear sophisticated and modern, and gain economic and social mobility. (p. 22)
Among some African American women who participate in internet forums, the goal is to have light skin not white skin. They also state the desire to even out skin tone, remove blemishes, or to be two or three shades lighter like many American celebrities such as Halle Berry or Beyonce (Glenn, 2008, p. 288).
Young Filipinas who participate in such internet forums are similar in that they don’t look to white Europeans and Americans as the ideal. They see Japanese and Koreans as having the desirable skin tone, or “Spanish- or Chinese-appearing (and light-skinned) Filipina celebrities, such as Michelle Reis, Sharon Kuneta, or Claudine Baretto” (Glenn, 2008, p. 291).
As I stated before, imperialism continues in a more high-tech and glamorous fashion, but it’s still the basic practice of presenting one thing as the ideal, so that you can capitalize off of people trying to attain that ideal.
Historians and anthropologists have disagreed about whether world cultures favored lighter skin tones before European colonialism, but the obvious source of large scale skin bleaching around the world today is a form of global capitalism that exploits the historic ideology of white superiority.