[OPINION] Skin lightening is dangerous but so are its social connotations

skin bleaching in south africa

By Nomali Cele

In 2016, a collage of American rapper Lil’ Kim surfaced on Twitter and many said they didn’t recognise the woman. It was because she looked much lighter than she had at the peak of her fame. Other celebrities have also gone lighter. Sometimes sources of such claims have been as unreliable as tabloid cover stories while other times, confirmation has been in the form of pictures on social media.

Young South African starlets have also recently made it known that they are lightening their skin. South Africa banned skin lightening products in 1990 but they’re inescapable on the streets. If you have walked any distance in the Johannesburg CBD and encountered street stalls, you would have seen a variety of skin-lightening products from soaps to creams, all at a cheap price. A survey reported that 35% South African women said they used skin lightening products regularly.

Societal pressures

The reasons that lead darker-skinned people to choose (or feel compelled) to lighten their skin are important. They are political and societal. European features have been the standard of beauty for centuries. Regardless of the shift, white women are constantly at the centre of what is considered beautiful. More than any race, women of African descent are more vulnerable to this view of beauty. They may be grown women choosing to lighten their skin, but it’s not a decision they arrive at naturally.

Childhood influences

The ubiquity of whiteness and westernised ideas of beauty can’t be escaped and it starts in childhood. It may seem unimportant that most dolls, cartoons and children’s merchandise are depicted as white but it’s not. This is where we learn about what the world values. If the heroes saving the day and the beautiful princesses look nothing like you, what’s the message?

2009’s Princess and the Frog was cartoon giant Disney’s first black princess. Most critics were unimpressed because the princess spent most of the film looking like a frog. Then in 2012 came the release of the first season of Doc McStuffins, made by an Irish animation studio in association with the Disney Channel. It stars a six-year-old girl who wants to be a doctor (like her mother) and practices by fixing toys. The doc just happens to be a dark-skinned, little black girl. The show is excellent and informative and when it was rumoured that it would be cancelled in 2016, there was an outcry.

The world still needs the representation and thankfully it wasn’t cancelled. What should be standard is currently the exception. There are not enough images representing black children and letting them know that they are beautiful and they can also do whatever they want to do in their lives.

As a culture, we seem to have come a long way from the days of the ‘doll tests’ but have we?

Black is beautiful

What use is it knowing that black is beautiful if all the world seems to be conspiring to keep you down? If success and affluence do not look like you, is it easier to change the system or to change how you look? In the Living Conditions of Households in South Africa survey, released this January, Statistics South Africa reported that white South Africans earn five times more than black South Africans in annual income. State violence is disproportionately against poor black communities. Of course, looking lighter does not make one white, but it does play into white supremacist ideals. Coloursim manifests in ‘innocent’ ways such as getting better marks, getting the chance to be heard, being deemed attractive by potential partners, getting work opportunities over one’s peers, who might have been more deserving, because you are lighter.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s where the Black Consciousness Movement was growing and gaining traction, the other side of that coin was a desire to be close to whiteness. Prominent community figures, such as doctors and business people, often used skin-lightening products. The portrayal of whiteness as healthy and beautiful and right has been ongoing.

Health repercussions

Skin-lightening creams are made with dangerous ingredients of which, mercury and hydroquinone are the worst. Discolouration, blemishes and outbreaks are the cosmetic effects of using skin-lightening products. The adverse health effects, according to the World Health Organization, include kidney failure, the skin weakening to a point where it can’t fight bacteria and symptoms of mental illness from the poisoning. Because street-grade skin-lightening products are cheap and unregulated, they’re even more dangerous. The mercury and steroid levels in them are dangerously high.

Instead of lashing out at the symptom, we need to address the cause, which is structural racism. And instead of allowing ‘black is beautiful’ to be a throwaway line, we need to manifest it and teach it to our children…

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