Have you ever read about rubbing lemons on your face to remove scars, lighten freckles and erase sunspots? It’s the type of everyday advice regularly espoused in the DIY columns of Cosmopolitan and the comments section of Jezebel, right up there with putting toothpaste on pimples and rubbing out hickies with a comb.
But these old wives’ tales about getting rid of blemishes often walk hand-in-hand with a multi-billion dollar, global skin lightening business, in which giant corporations like Unilever (owner of well-known beauty brands like Dove and Vaseline) push everything from creams and soaps to washes and scrubs meant to get darker skin whiter.
‘Removing scars,’ ‘softening skin’ and ‘evening out skin tones’ are phrases containing buzzwords for products specifically designed to lighten the skin over time; often described as ‘bleaching’.
While rampant among men and women in many Caribbean, African and Asian countries, there is a stigma attached to skin bleaching in the United States that has started to drift outwards, with countries like Ghana recently moving to ban products that contain the skin-lightening ingredient hydroquinone. And, as diversity in such industries as fashion, television and movies has remained a prominent issue in the U.S. and worldwide, many are also starting to question the appeal of products and practices aimed to lighten skin – why is lighter skin a goal, anyway?
What makes the skin-bleaching creams that come out of a jar different from the idea of rubbing a little lemon across the bridge of your nose, if anything? And is the entire concept of lightening one’s skin different for women of color than for white women?
It’s a multifaceted question, but the most pressing concern is the rampant colorism – prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group – in both global and American black communities as well as across non-black groups of color.
Historically and presently, lighter skin is seen as more valuable than darker skin, from the caste system in India to the brown paper bag test in the United States. This prizing of lighter skin because it is closer to whiteness is a direct result of global European colonization, wherein lighter-skinned Europeans effectively seized control of nations of color for decades and even centuries; influencing them with not only a Eurocentric standard of beauty that praised lighter skin but one which often went hand in hand with religious indoctrination that called for the worshipping of a white Jesus, Virgin Mary and saints.
When the god that you worship is literally a white man, it is easy to intrinsically associate purity and beauty with lighter skin, and even up until present day this often manifests in subconscious biases that have proven to affect prison sentences and school suspensions. Darker skin has also been falsely linked with testosterone and masculinity in the past, leading to lighter skin becoming acquainted with femininity: after all, men are ‘tall, dark and handsome’ while women are ‘fair maidens.’ Inversely, lighter-skinned men are ‘pretty boys’ while darker-skinned women are seen as more ‘manly,’ especially within the black community.
Outspoken rap-tivist Azealia Banks came under fire a few months ago for admitting to bleaching her skin. She later claimed on various social media posts that she felt pressured to lighten her skin in order to succeed in the industry, and also said that it was the same thing as getting a 20-inch straight weave (which Yung Rapunxel was also known for doing).
After her impassioned speeches about cultural appropriation, racism and sexism in the recording industry, many found her actions to be disappointing and hypocritical. Others, though, understood her words, recognizing that she was not listened to or accepted as much as a lighter-skinned black woman, and that her skin color and facial features were often brought up mockingly to sideline her astute observations on racial inequality.
East Asian girls wanting paler skin also has roots in post-colonial cultural classifications of whiteness as pure and more beautiful. Darker Southeast Asians, such as Filipinos – who tend to have darker skin and curlier hair – are often looked down upon in relation to East Asians such as the Japanese, Chinese, or Koreans, who tend to have lighter skin and straighter hair.
Sayings that describe Filipinos as ‘the Mexicans of Asia’ or that encourage lighter Southeast Asians to ‘pass’ for East Asians in order to get better educational or job opportunities are also common.
White girls removing freckles isn’t exactly the same as centuries-old caste systems putting darker skinned people at the bottom of a social hierarchy and lighter ones at the top. And, as the recent Shea Moisture controversy has shown, while all women face oppressive societal norms due to misogyny, the issues women of color have with standards of beauty are unique to their own respective cultures and positions in society.
Even in American and European history, ‘darker’ people like the ruddy-complected Irish and Italians, those from the Mediterranean and other ethnic groups like Jewish people and Romanians have been discriminated against for having darker skin. Shop signs in early America would be just as likely to ban Italians as black people, and it was only by assimilating into the idea of ‘whiteness’ by the perpetuation of anti-black racism that many of these ethnic groups even became ‘white.’
So, what is the final consensus on skin lightening products? With the historical and cultural context, it seems a vast oversimplification to call bleaching just a question of vanity. The appeal of lighter skin has deep-seated roots in colonialism, colorism and racism, and we are currently living in times where there are global questions around race and ethnicity in nations with increasingly shifting demographics.
While these types of products have enjoyed enormous popularity over the years, it might be time to finally just embrace the skin that we’re in.
Now take a look at the rise of VR porn.
- Words: Eboni Harris
- Lead image: Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images