Skin Whitening: The Unrelenting Tragedy of People with Skin of Colour

Published on 25th December 2018

Historical and Contemporary Notes Cosmetics have been used from ancient times in religious rituals, to enhance beauty, and to promote good health and other practical considerations such as protection from the sun; class system; or of its conventions of beauty (Mapes, 2008). As far back as 10000 BCE, men and women in Egypt used scented oils and ointments to clean and soften their skin and mask body odour. Cosmetics were an integral part of Egyptian hygiene and health. Oils and creams were used for protection against the hot Egyptian sun and dry winds. Myrrh, thyme, marjoram, chamomile, lavender, lily, peppermint, rosemary, cedar, rose, aloe, olive oil, sesame oil, and almond oil provide the basic ingredients of most perfumes that Egyptians use in religious ritual. Skin whitening started becoming fashionable in Egypt around 3000 BCE and by 1500 BCE it was common practice even among Grecian, Chinese and Japanese women. By 1000 BCE Grecians were whitening their complexion with chalk or lead face powder and fashion crude lipstick out of ochre clays laced with red iron.

Around AD 100 the Romans felt that a white complexion was the most beautiful. They took milk baths and used powdered chalk to make the complexion paler. Soon after, lead and arsenic powders were introduced to whiten the skin. These ‘cosmetics’ led to many deaths due to poisoning.

Despite lead's health hazards, ranging from skin ruptures to madness to infertility, upper-crust Romans went on to use white lead (or cerussa, the key ingredient in those once-popular lead paints) to lighten their faces, then topped that off with a bit of red lead (or minium, currently used in the manufacture of batteries and rust-proof paint) for that “healthy” rose glow. Lead was also a major ingredient in the hair dyes of the day, either intentionally or otherwise.

Of course, the use of white lead in ancient Rome paled in comparison to the workout it got during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The “dead white” look was tres chic back then and as a result men and women painted their faces with a mixture of white lead and vinegar, peeled their skin with white lead and sublimate of mercury and used lead sulfate to remove their freckles (and hopefully nothing too vital, like a nose).

According to Kevin Jones, curator at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles, the use of cosmetics packed with lead, mercury, arsenic and other dangerous elements made for a particularly vicious cycle. “People would put whitening on their skin and over time, it would eat the skin away, causing all sorts of scarring,” he says. “And the way they covered that up was to apply thicker amounts of the makeup, which would then exacerbate the situation. It was a horrible process — once you got started you couldn’t stop.” One way some people finally stopped was by dying, which eventually prompted members of the medical community and the press to sound the alarm about the dangers of certain cosmetics (Mapes, 2008).

In a case study looking at the preference for lighter skin colour in India, Nigeria and Thailand, Imani (2013) finds that colonization was primarily responsible for the development of colourism in India and Nigeria, while contemporary foreign media has been most influential in shaping Thailand’s colourist preferences. The global association of whiteness with deep material and social privilege is the overarching factor that ultimately fuels colourism in the developing world.

A number of studies have attempted to link skin whitening with various rationales. Thappa & Malathi (2014) argue that colourism also known as skin colour stratification, defined as the preference for lighter skin and the ranking of individual worth according to skin tone has dominated a broad range of societies and historical periods, specifically in parts of Africa, Eastern Asia, India, Latin America, and the United States. The abundance of colourism is a result of the global prevalence of “pigmentocracy,” a term to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin colour. Throughout the numerous pigmentocracies across the world, the lightest‑skinned peoples have the highest social status, followed by the brown‑skinned, and finally the black‑skinned who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This form of prejudice often results in reduced opportunities for those who are discriminated against on the basis of skin colour. While acknowledging that dark‑skinned people are typically regarded as more ethnically authentic or legitimate, it is quite common in India to associate “fairness” of skin with comparative wealth, desirability, prestige, and attractiveness and for women increased matrimonial prospects with lesser dowry.

Nadeem (2014) reports that skin-lightening or ‘fairness’ creams – with their troubling colonial overtones – are big business in India, an over $200 million industry that comprises the largest segment of the country's skin cream market. Western corporations have been widely criticized for profiting on colourism and they continue to produce advertisements that equate light skin with beauty, success, and empowerment. 

Quoting various sources, Julien (2014) argues that although skin bleaching in South Africa cannot be attributed exclusively to colonialism or apartheid, both concepts play an important role in determining the reasons for self-hatred and low self-esteem that push some Africans to bleach their skin. It is argued that the residual racism left after colonization is an important factor in understanding some South Africans’ preference for Eurocentric standard of beauty and lighter skin tones. Although many men bleach their skin in some regions of Africa, skin bleaching is more prevalent amongst women (Ajose, 2005). There is a high rate of skin bleaching across Africa and other parts of the world (Street et al., 2014; Blay, 2011; Dadzie & Petit, 2009; Giovanna & Castellani, 2009; Adebajo, 2002; Hamed et al., 2010; Bissek et al., 2011; Chohan et al., 2014; Atadokpédé et al., 2015): 80 % in Cote D’Ivoire; 77.3 % in Nigeria; 65 % in Cameroon; 62.7 % in Senegal; 60-65 % in India; 60.7 % in Jordan; 60 % in Zambia; 58.9 % in Togo; 58 % in Thailand; 50 % in Mali; 50 % in Pakistan; 44.3 % in Burkina Faso; 36.6 % in Benin; 35 % in South Africa; 30 % in Ghana; 30 % in East Africa; 24 % in Japan. Julien (2014) proposes that the high rates of skin bleaching in South Africa could be resulting from the way in which the South African media, including billboards, portrays attractiveness panders to women’s motivation to lighten their skin. In their research in Tanzania, Lewis et al. (2012) identified six key motivators why people, particularly women, bleach their skin. The authors reported that people, may bleach their skin: to remove skin imperfections such as rashes, dark spots, and pimples; to make or maintain softer skin; to whiten their complexion so they can meet the westernized standard of beauty; to correct uneven skin tone or excessive damages caused by skin bleaching; to make themselves look more attractive to current or potential partners; and to impress and meet their friends’ approval.

This article investigates the extent to which the emerging trend of do-it-yourself anti-ageing skinwhitening products represents a re-articulation of Western colonial concerns with environmental pollution and racial degeneracy into concern with gendered vulnerability. This emerging market is a multibillion dollar industry anchored in the USA, but expanding globally. Do-it-yourself antiageing skin-whitening products purport to address the needs of those looking to fight the visible signs of ageing, often promising to remove hyper-pigmented age spots from women's skin, and replace it with ageless skin, free from pigmentation. In order to contextualize the investigation of do-it-yourself anti-ageing skin-whitening practice and discourse, this article draws from the literature in colonial commodity culture, colonial tropical medicine, the contemporary anti-ageing discourse, and advertisements for anti-ageing skin-whitening products. First, it argues that the framing of the biomedicalization of ageing as a pigmentation problem caused by deteriorating environmental conditions and unhealthy lifestyle draws tacitly from European colonial concerns with the European body's susceptibility to tropical diseases, pigmentation disorders, and racial degeneration. Second, the article argues that the rise of do-it-yourself anti-ageing skin-whitening commodities that promise to whiten, brighten, and purify the ageing skin of women and frames the visible signs of ageing in terms of pigmentation pathology (Mire, 2014).

Studies indicate that the use of skin whitening products is growing fastest among young, urban, educated women in the global south where light skin operates as a form of symbolic capital. Scholars believe that the racial legacy of colonialism alone is not a sufficient explanation for the recent rise in the use of skin-lighteners. It is considered that capitalism, western consumer culture and persisting white/western supremacy ideals are among the motives driving this practice (Hugo & CAI, 2012).

Shrestha (2013) uses a circumspect description of the overlapping conditions of transnational commercialized beauty culture and industry within which western white/light beauty standards and skin-whitening products flourish.

Courtesy: African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO)


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