Product shelves promise a lot of things in exchange for money: beauty, perfection, success. One line of products that has become increasingly popular promises to lighten pigmentation forever, some in as little as 7 days. They are sometimes called “skin lighteners,” “skin brighteners” or “fade creams.” But they are all skin-bleaching products. According to Companies and Markets, “The global skin lightener [industry] has been forecast to reach a value of US$19.8 billion by 2018.” The products are mostly aimed globally towards women of darker skin tones (especially in Africa and the U.S.), who are told that they will be more successful if they have lighter skin. That is the problem with skin bleaching: it results in a stigma of hate against dark skin by telling women their color isn’t good enough. This stigma then manifests itself into colorism, or, discrimination based on skin color.
The origin of colorism can be seen first in colonialism “from the mental and physical enslavement of black people” (Anekwe). Colonists like Willie Lynch (where the term “lynching” comes from) created a system of power where whites were superior to blacks. In his book The Willie Lynch Letter And the Making of A Slave, Lynch writes “you must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves, and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves….They must love, respect and trust only us…the slaves themselves will remain perpetually distrustful of each other” (1). Lighter-skinned blacks were given better jobs, housing, and were valued more by colonists than dark-skinned blacks. This promoted the belief that the only way to have a better life was to be lighter. When slavery ended, colorism did not. In America, lighter-skinned black people still had the upper hand as the now “Negro Elite” in society (Velmurugiah). This same “Negro Elite” would use tests to determine if a black person was white enough to socialize with. The ruler test: hair had to be as straight as a ruler. The brown paper bag test: skin had to be lighter than the bag. Although these tests are not publicly done today, their ideals still linger in society. For example, it is still not socially acceptable for blacks to sport natural hairstyles in the work environment or even in school. In 2013, 12-year-old Vanessa VanDyke was given a one week suspension because her natural afro was deemed “a distraction” for other students (Ange).
In Africa, colonists often used Bible scriptures to justify slavery, especially the account of Cain’s exile. Nina Jablonski, in her article “Skin Color and The Establishment of Races, explains how the story was manipulated: “in the account of Cain’s exile [which] was inaccurately interpreted to infer that the black descendants of Cain were cursed, when, in fact, the mark of Cain conferred God’s protection and involved a curse on any person who harmed Cain in his exile” (137). Through this and other scriptures, Westerners wholeheartedly believed that Africans were a cursed race that they needed to distinguish themselves from. This desire for superior distinction seeped into every aspect of life, including the marketing of basic household items, like soap. In the 19th century, Pear’s Transparent Soap was commissioned to advertise how well it could keep European skin pure and make black skin white. The ad’s caption reads “… Pear’s Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place–it is the ideal toilet soap” (Blay, 16). The ad implies that white men will protect themselves from the dirt of the African natives while helping them by brightening up their uncivilized conditions. Through these types of historical events, blacks have been forced to compete with white standards. This is what leads blacks to bleach their skin “to reap the social benefits of light skin in society” (Charles).
Skin bleaching, by definition, “refers to people’s use of homemade, cosmetic, or dermatological products over time to remove melanin from the skin” (Charles, 3). Today, it is more popular than ever. In Africa, it is seen as an everyday practice, much like showering. It can be used on the entire body or a section like the face. People of all races, ethnicities, levels of education and income engage in it. It can come in forms of soap, creams, pills, etc. There is even an injectable lightener. In America, the products aren’t as straightforward in saying they are skin lighteners but rather, upon searching on Google, described as brighteners/fade creams. This could be a reason as to why many Americans see skin bleaching as safe because companies downplay how strong they really are. In actuality, many of these products contain harmful chemicals like Hydroquinone, Corticosteroids, and even Mercury.
Hydroquinone is an organic compound that blocks the skin’s process to produce melanin. Because melanin cannot be produced, the skin becomes hypersensitive to sunrays which increases the likelihood of skin cancer. Long term use of Hydroquinone can lead to a severe skin condition called ochronosis, a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the skin to turn a dark purple shade (Olumide, 346). Corticosteroids are used to treat skin inflammation like eczema and can lighten skin quickly. Prolonged use leads to thin and fragile skin, permanent stretch marks, excessive hair growth, steroids acne, and much more. Corticosteroids can also result in diabetes, hypertensive disorders, and addiction syndromes (Mayo Foundation). The worst is mercury, which destroys healthy cellular function. In a 2011 World Health Organization assessment, mercury is cited to cause skin rashes, as well as a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression, and peripheral neuropathy (WHO).
Despite this, skin bleaching products are still widely used to pursue beauty. In his article “Skin Bleaching and the Cultural Meanings of Race and Skin Color,” Christopher Charles explains this motivation:
Skin bleachers’ equation of beauty with light complexion points to the negative stereotype they hold that people with black complexion are ugly. The social importance of light skinned people that are imbued with ‘beauty,’ intelligence,’ high social prestige and status influence skin bleachers to modify their complexion.
In both Africa and America, Women and even men are pressured by society to be lighter in order to get the benefits that come from having lighter or white skin. A report called “Shedding ‘Light’ on Marriage,” found that “light-skin . . . as measured by survey interviewers is associated with about a 15 percent greater probability of marriage for young black women, and light-skin… as measured by self-reported biracial status is associated with the presence of better educated and higher-earning spouses for married black females” (Hamilton). Another found that light-skinned black men got hired more often than dark-skinned black men “possibly due to the common belief that fair-skinned blacks probably [had] more similarities with whites than do dark-skinned blacks, which in turn makes whites feel more comfortable around them” (Post-Gazelle). As a result of biases like these, the same 2011 World Health Organization assessment cited that Nigeria had the most women using skin lightening products on a regular basis, at 77%. In America, a 2012 Nielsen survey showed skin-bleaching products at a 434% increase for leading product categories among African-American consumers (Nielsen). Therefore, an incredible amount of black women are buying and using these skin bleaching products regularly. However, it should be pointed out that this data is more than three years old, so these percentages could have increased greatly over time.
Media and celebrity endorsements are also at fault for perpetual skin-bleaching problem in Africa. Niresha Velmurugiah, a medical student at the University of Alberta, wrote about skin lightening for the online student think tank, Akili Initiative. In her post, she writes that “Ads [marketing skin bleaching] insisted that black women could increase their social popularity and sexual desirability…” (Velmurugiah) Because of marketing ploys like this, sales in skin bleaching products skyrocketed. There are also celebrities endorsing and marketing their own line of skin bleaching products. Last year, West African pop star Dencia released her line Whitenicious – whose slogan is, “Say goodbye to pigmentation and spots forever.” It supposedly lightens skin in as little as seven days. When interviewed about the outrage and criticism accusing the product line of promoting skin bleaching and self-hate to people of color, Dencia replied “People really want to buy it. It’s what it is. I don’t really care”(Dencia). It is incredibly saddening that a celebrity with so much influence like Dencia, who knows that her fans will do whatever she says, does not care about their wellbeing. She is glorifying the hateful ideal that lighter skin is better. This in turn will results in colorism. In the journal article “The Global Phenomenon of Skin Bleaching”, Dr. Obiora N. Anekwe writes:
Many African women have expressed that media images portraying white women as beautiful greatly influenced their decision to whiten their own skin. Furthermore, these women have added that although skin whitening products may have harmful effects, they would still use these products to look and feel more beautiful.
Dencia is not white but on the ad for Whitenicious, she looks very close to it. She is also very famous and thus very influential in the African community. So it is not unlikely that many women are seeing her ads and claims and from that, they are now more inclined to buy her product.
The problematic role of media and celebrities can be seen in America as well, where Anekwe states “African-Americans are often coerced through the mass media to believe that lightening one’s skin… brings greater acceptance into the larger North American society.” The media will show black celebrities like Lil Kim or Sammy Sosa (who shocked the world in 2009 when he appeared on the red carpet with ghost-like skin). Anekwe explains that “people see these celebrities and now they think that [this] is the standard of beauty that will make them successful.” Slowly, people become culturally brainwashed into disliking their dark skin and opting for lighter skin, going through dramatic ends to gain acceptance from general society. There does not seem to be a sense of positivity in one’s individuality and ethnic roots. Instead, people use skin color to prove themselves worthy.
Skin bleaching is a result of that desire to be worthy which stems from colorism, promoting a stigma against dark skin. Since the age of colonialism has ingrained ideas in dark-skinned blacks that the only way to succeed in life is to have lighter skin. These types of ideas puts blacks and other dark skin toned people in dangerous positions because of the health risks that come from these products. So how does one go about changing people’s views on skin bleaching? Changing media position through public service campaigns can educate consumers about the risks and promote positive body image . There has been success with this, like the brand Dove, who released an internationally marketed commercial celebrating and redefining beauty by focusing on the strengths of color diversity. It effectively reached sections of the world that previously would have never known about the dangers of skin bleaching. To quote Dr.Anekwe, “Education is one of the most effective ways to inform the general public.” Starting the conversation about skin bleaching is the first step towards strengthening that education and fostering an environment where skin color does not equate to success no matter what the product shelf promises.
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