Skin Bleaching: The Color of Acceptance and Protection

I still remember my first encounter with skin bleaching- a Fair and Lovely advertisement. A woman looks into the mirror, distressed and frazzled by her complexion, then she gets the cream that she applies. In just 4 weeks, she’s 5 shades lighter. Now? She can’t stop smiling and glowing all thanks to Fair and Lovely…

Skin bleaching is the use of topical products to permanently or temporarily lighten your complexion.1 Other methods of skin lightening include pills, injections, even technology like lasers. More often than not these products contain mercury, lead, steroids and hydroquinone that are known to cause serious health problems.

How these products work is by blocking the melanocytes that constantly produce melanin at the same time removing the pigment already in the skin. You know melanin right? An evolutionary advantage that allows people to manage the absorption of harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun- nature’s sunscreen. Sounds kind of important…

 

The Journal of Black Studies lists some side-effects such as “… irreversible skin damage, cancers, and liver or kidney failure.” The journal further shows that skin bleaching in East Africa is practiced by nearly 30% of the population.2 Hoffner and Buchanan show that the pressures of lightening skin, are more prevalent in adolescent females.3 

 

In Kenya, the government banned the sale of skin bleaching products but that has done little to stop it. ONE Google search and I was given tons of clinics and products offering to “brighten” my skin. The streets of River Road and Dubois are littered with smuggled products that sell at varied price points so everyone can access them.

Researchers found that Tanzanian women gave six chief reasons bleaching their skin, including:4

(a) remove pimples and rashes

(b) have soft skin

(c) be white and more European looking

(d) remove the adverse effects of extended skin-bleaching

(e) satisfy one’s partner and/or attract mates of the opposite sex

(f) impress peers.

They concluded that motivations are rooted in the remnants of colonialization, patriarchy and globalization.

Colonial powers weaponized a biological mechanism and declared whiteness as inherently superior. This allowed them to amass an unchecked level of global control that is economically, socially and culturally beneficial to them. It propped up racism and colourism as we know it today and have completely shifted cultural mindsets around beauty.5

Media plays a heavy role in encouraging these racist structures. I recall what fresh hell it was to be young and exploring media for the first time. You’re impressionable and consuming the world around you with no context or guidance. Video vixens and flat tummied models are either white or light skinned with no representation for dark skinned women. The intersections of race and gender disproportionately affect darker skinned women, like in make-up where the shade range is limited past a certain point leaving many dark skin women with no options.

In “If You’re Light, You’re Alright”, M.L Hunter goes on to explain how the color of skin is linked to social capital and protections.6 Beautification isn’t merely about vanity, it affects one’s ability to access a certain level of education, employment options, status in society even protections offered by the justice system.

Complexion is complex and more so if the politics that govern it don’t represent you. Newer generations are storing the unprocessed trauma of the past and it is manifesting in unpredictable ways. Alongside sensitizing ourselves to the issues around us, these products ought to be regulated and prescribed by trained professionals who at the very least can ensure the least amount of damage is being done. Banning them only means they operate in an obscure manner and protections will not be given to those who partake in the act.

Footnotes
  1. Kelly M. Lewis et al., “Investigating Motivations for Women’s Skin Bleaching in Tanzania,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 35, no. 1 (March 2011): 29–37, https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684310392356.
  2. Kelly M. Lewis et al., “The Need for Interventions to Prevent Skin Bleaching: A Look at Tanzania,” Journal of Black Studies 43, no. 7 (2012): 787–805, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/23414697.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ae05dddf8765e0c7f0739e983107c3d6d.
  3. Oberiri Destiny Apuke, “Why Do Women Bleach? Understanding the Rationale behind Skin Bleaching and the Influence of Media in Promoting Skin Bleaching: A Narrative Review,” Global Media Journal 16, no. 30 (February 15, 2018): 1–4, https://www.globalmediajournal.com/open-access/why-do-women-bleach-understanding-the-rationale-behind-skin-bleachingand-the-influence-of-media-in-promoting-skin-bleaching-a-narr.php?aid=86820#14. 
  4.  Ibid
  5. Margaret L. Hunter, “‘If You’re Light You’re Alright’: Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color,” Gender and Society 16, no. 2 (2002): 175–93, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3081860.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_search_gsv2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A5601b9257c90a5fb57607ab2322c413a.
  6. Hunter 2002)