Beyond the pale : Skin Whitening

I thought that the practice of skin-whitening / skin bleaching had ended with the 1980s but apparently not. According to Amina Mire writing in Counter Punch a few years ago, ‘there is an emerging skin-whitening industry’ where expensive skin bleaching products are being marketed as anti-aging creams for white women (with promises to ‘restore’ and ‘transform’ aging skins) and as skin-lightening creams (with the promise of ‘White Perfect’) for Asian women – the second largest market after white women. Black women are using the creams less, but when they do use them, they tend to use the cheaper – and therefore more toxic – variety. African women who have chosen to use skin-bleaching creams have very often suffered devastating disfigurement from their toxicity, as well as condemnation by society at large. Before we condemn the many Black and African women who have chosen to use the creams, however, we should note that even today many communities believe the lighter the skin the better, especially in women. It may not be as overt as 50 years ago, but the colour / hair complex and associated colonial mentality within our communities still exits.

The article provides a brief history and background to the skin-bleaching industry, which was originally targeted at both Black women and southern white women in the US as early as 1889. The marketing ran:

‘A white person objects to a swarthy brown-hued or mulatto-like skin, therefore if staying much out of doors use regularly Satin Skin Vanishing Greaseless Cream to keep the skin normally white.’

‘Dark-skinned’ southern and eastern Europeans were another target market. The bleaching creams helped them to pass for ‘white’ northern European just in case they did not appear white enough in a country where ‘invisible blackness’ existed (light-skinned Blacks ‘passing’ for whites). For these women, using the creams could be seen as part of an acceptable day-to-day beauty routine. For Black women there was no hiding from the ‘whitening’ aspect of the creams, which at any rate would be a giveaway once the hands or other body parts were visible, not to mention their African features.

The media have always discussed the skin-whitening market in the context of Black women, and the terrible damage the creams cause, rather than as a global practice by women of all skin shades and races. Nonetheless the damage to Black women has resulted in the ‘marketing around the world, of a new and, conceivably, “safer” but high expensive skin-whitening commodities and combatant technologies’. The main target of these expensive creams are wealthy Asian women to ‘modify skin tone’ and to equally rich white women as an ‘anti-aging therapy’. What is strange to my mind is that creams containing 2 per cent hydroquinone that have caused damage to African women are now  being used as an anti-aging cream for white women with double the amount of hydroquinone. One such cream, called ‘Lustre’, is made by a US pharmaceutical company and is sold in beauty salons and dermatology offices in the US.’

Mire also makes the connection between the pharmaceutical industry and the cosmetic industry. Transnational biotechnology, pharmaceutical and cosmetics corporations are engaged in the research and development and mass marketing of a plethora of new forms of skin-whitening products which can ‘bleach out’ the ‘dark skin tones’ of women of colour and remove corporeal evidence of anti-aging processes, unhealthy life-styles and overall pollution from the skin of white women.’

In short, these cosmetic whiteners are a one-stop solution that cuts across racial, class and lifestyle boundaries that play to both the desire for eternal youth and racial superiority. The largest cosmetic company in the world is L’Oreal, who also serve as a prime example of the pharmaceutical-cosmetic industry link; in this case between L’Oreal and Sanofi-Synthelabo, the third largest pharmaceutical company after Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. Although L’Oreal claims it no longer uses animals in its research laboratories, it is an EUrequirement that all new cosmetics be tested on animals.

Nonetheless there remains a blur between the distinction of cosmetics and pharmaceutics. As Mire points out, this has ‘serious social, medical and political implications’. The accompanying advertising is a mix of pharmaceutics, cosmetics and straight-up racism. For example, Vichy, a L’Oreal subsidiary that is a pharmaceutics / cosmetics mix is able to market skin lightening as ‘skincare biomedicine’. To advertise their product Bi-White, Vichy show a supposedly   ‘Asian woman peeling off her black facial skin with a zipper. As her black skin is removed a new “smooth”, “whitened” skin with no blemishes takes its place. The implications of this image are blunt and chilling. Blackness is false, dirty and ugly. Whiteness is true, health, clean and beautiful.’

The image becomes a violent representation of self-hate whereby the natural skin is torn off to accommodate a lighter, whiter, more acceptable version of the self. Lancome‘s Blanc Expert, which they say was tested on 19 Asian women, is even more of an attack on women’s bodies and reinforcement of ‘white is best’, as we are told that the face ‘is freed of 70% of its excess melanin. Dark spots – even the most stubborn ones – are visibly reduced.’

The skin-lightening industry has now advanced to an even more invasive level with the introduction of skin-lightening pills on the market that allow people to ‘lighten their skin from within’ and come away with a ‘Hollywood’ complexion. Glow2Thione inhibits and blocks the enzyme responsible for the ‘production of dark melanin pigments’. The advert tells us that though ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ this may not be actually what we feel within – perception is everything. So if we are dark skinned we are naturally perceived to be not so beautiful – even though we may well be. This product is particularly sinister as it is also marketed as an anti-oxidant and by implication a protection against harmful ‘free radicals’ which damage the skin. What damage the pills themselves may cause we do not know and are certainly not informed.

To end on a positive note, the BBC recently published a photo essay which speaks against the practice of skin whitening. The essay is based on a beauty competition held in Ivory Coast and an accompanying song informing African women not to lighten up their skin, which is a ‘gift from God’. The competition, called Ms Authentica, only permits women with untreated skins to enter the competition. The issue of beauty pageants is a whole new discussion but I cannot argue with a campaign to stop African women destroying their skin and from submitting to the racism that is embedded within the use of skin-lightening cosmetics.