Skin lightening: looking deeper into the ugly face of the cosmetics industry

The ancient practice of skin whitening is globally accepted for women of all shades. In a contemporary twist, big brand cosmetic companies are cashing in with a racist message that reflects an enduring fascination with white skin.

Two anecdotes from my travels illustrate how diverse cultures can share similar attitudes towards skin lightening:

In Myanmar, whole shop fronts are papered with adverts for skin lightening creams; “White Perfect” (L’Oreal) or “White Beauty” (Ponds). The blatant message shocks: white skin equals perfection. For Burmese women and women across the world, their task is to strive for an impossible ideal of the kind of pinkly-gleaming young women smiling across billboards. The sanctioned method to fade out their melanin until a uniform whiteness is revealed.

Cut to a declining fishing village on the edge of St. Louis, Senegal: corrugated-roof shacks lean with satellite aerials tuned into Middle Eastern TV; the watching wives seduced by adverts for skin lightening products. Their new faces glow orange against the sun, their little money spent on whitening up. This is a recent phenomenon, I am told.

In the UK, African and Asian women are disproportionately affected. How much do we know about this practice that happens right under our noses? Has skin lightening, bleaching and the industry surrounding it become the acceptable face of racism, shadism, disempowerment, oppression? Yes, in its assertion that one skin colour trumps another in the one-upmanship games of colour; it upholds existing imbalances, class, caste and other colour and social classification systems. When does a practice become sanctioned by a society? When it becomes normalised among its communities of users and remains unquestioned by all.

Is skin lightening merely about covering up flaws, age spots, dark patches? Psychologically it goes deeper. Like smoking, it is a compelling habit intertwined with social status, marriageability, self-perception. Once you start, how can you stop? It is a deliberate act of reversing your true skin colour to reveal what you think you want to be: wealthier, more attractive, of higher status; and to emulate what you have been conditioned to covet in others.

What happens to a woman’s self-image when her colour, the marker of how she is treated in the world, changes daily? Does she lose the sense of who she is?  Does she feel a greater sense of entitlement with her fairer skin? At best, she is temporarily elevated by others equally misled by the myth that white equals pure; at worst, scarred physically and psychologically from unregulated skin bleaching products.

Skin whitening is rarely scrutinised in the UK mainstream media, or investigated for potential harm, unlike smoking, obesity, or the tanning industry for example. An issue of the minority is not a concern of the majority. “We are worth it,” states L’Oreal, but not if you are too dark: while in 2008 cultural icon Beyoncé featured in L’Oreal’s Feria hair colour campaign (complete with bleached out skin), the quietly selling White Perfect range continues to underline this subliminal message.

Of course, L’Oreal and Ponds are not the only offenders in this contemporary form of commodity racism; they might argue there is an existing market for whitening products across the eastern and southern world, where such brands are targeted. They are merely responding to the desire for more sophisticated products. But they operate in countries where whiteness, beauty and goodness have been indelibly linked for centuries; at worst they are upholding the unbalanced status quo, where the most concentrated forms of power and wealth belong to the fairer skinned.

When did the world’s love affair with whiter (read purer) skin begin? It’s a centuries-old phenomenon, sealed in colonial times with a slave rape here and a missionary message there, that fair and light skin achieves a purer heart and a leg up the social ladder. With populations growing, more women with less wealth are compelled to compete for husbands, jobs or status through one of the cheapest and most accessible ways open to them.

Skin lightening is a form of self mutilation. It can extend to the bleaching of flesh, the growing disgust with a darkening skin, the shameful skin covered over with long sleeves. As skin colour is erased, so too is self-belief eroded. A negative self-image stifles our erotic nature; we become defined by the boundary of the mirror and beyond that the acceptance of others. The cut runs deep through the global female psyche and I wonder what scars we will be left with? It’s time to question this dubious practice that contributes to misunderstanding between women of all colours.

Image shows a shopfront in Bago, Myanmar, covered with advertisements for Pond’s “White Beauty”. Image provided by Suze, the photographer.

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