Skin Deep – The Bleaching Industry

skin deep #1Pop star Michael Jackson was the subject of ridicule for his increasingly white complexion. Rumours circulated for years that he’d been bleaching his skin, out of shame of being African-American. However, as confirmed by Jackson himself and in his autobiography, Jackson was actually suffering from a skin disorder called vitiligo.

At the time, he was criticised for being a ‘lousy role model for black youth’. Though his is an extreme case, other black celebrities have been linked to skin bleaching. Rihanna, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj are among the names associated with the practice.

Are the alleged skin bleaching habits of celebrities influencing black youth? Who can say for sure?

In August 2016, Ghana implemented a ban of hydroquinone, the primary chemical in many skin-bleaching products. It was one of the three African countries to regulate skin-lightening products, as part of a backlash against the practice.

It’s certainly not a dying industry. In 2012, India alone used 258 tons of skin lightening cream (1), and a survey found that 77% of residents in Lagos, Nigeria use the products (2).

skin deep #5The multibillion dollar industry is rampant in West Africa, in which women are bombarded with mixed messages. On the one hand, they’re told that bleaching their skin is wrong, and on the flip side, they’re being injected with subliminal messages telling them that white skin is beautiful above all else.

There’s concerns about the health ramifications of skin bleaching – officials are worried about a rise in skin cancer, as the products attack the skin’s natural protective melanin (3).

With the industry pulling in $10 billion (4), there seems to be no end in sight. But why has it grown to be such a monstrously large entity?

White Skin In Asia

White skin is seen as aspirational in many asian cultures. Hiroshi Wagatsuma recited a old Japanese proverb “White skin makes up for seven defects” as an explanation for his country’s obsession with light skin. Though often described as ‘yellow’ by westerners, east asian people seldom think of themselves in such terms. A shocking poll found that three-quarters of Malaysian men thought their partners would be more attractive with skin deep #3lighter complexions (5).

Similar attitudes are held in India. The caste system within the country often places dark skinned people towards the lower ends of society, leaving white skin as a symbol of power and wealth. Even in the Hindu religion, the purity of whiteness and the wickedness of blackness is reinforced through the story of Ram’s victory over the evil Ravana (6).

The associations with lighter skin being desirable usually come with connotations of wealth. The upper castes would be sat inside, leaving the poor to labour outside and receive more exposure on their skin. The colourism exhibited in Indian society is embedded from the days of British rule (7).

White Skin In Africa

The preference for white skin in Africa can be traced back to slavery. Black female slaves were often ‘bred’ with their own white owners, creating lighter skinned children that received preferential treatment. Like the Indian situation, they were seen more positively because they weren’t toiling in the fields like their darker skinned counterparts (8).

Nigerian-Cameroonian singer Dancia ran into controversy over her promotion of a skin-bleaching cream called ‘Whitenicious’, defending her claims by saying “Some people they don’t feel confident, they don’t feel pure, they don’t feel clean with dark spots.’ (9)

Though she ran into plenty of criticism online, the problem doesn’t end with Dancia. Hatred of dark skin is unfortunately rampant within African culture. Colonial racism is continuing to reap the seeds of bigotry.

The solution, if there is one, isn’t easy to find. But discussing it is a start. Celebrities like Beyoncé and Rihanna certainly can’t be blamed entirely, but their increasingly lighter complexions can definitely seen to be adding fuel to the fire.

skin deep #2

The solution, if there is one, isn’t easy to find. But discussing it is a start. Celebrities like Beyoncé and Rihanna certainly can’t be blamed entirely, but their increasingly lighter complexions can definitely seen to be adding fuel to the fire.

There needs to be a more active campaign in the media, to initiate pride in darker skin tones. That means that dark skin should remain un-edited, un-lightened and un-filtered. Doing otherwise sends the wrong message, and isn’t helpful in the curret climate, where images from photoshoots reach young impressionable youth in minutes.







7. Savita Malik, The Domination of Fair Skin: Skin Whitening, Indian Women and Public Health, San Francisco State University Department of Health Education (2007)




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