An incredible 61 percent of beauty products sold in India promise skin lightening qualities, while four out of five women in Nigeria use some form of skin bleaching treatment. Why do we still think that whiter is better?
By Bianca Soldani
A seemingly innocent set of selfies has blown up for Lil’ Kim.
After slowly collecting their gaping mouths from the floor, fans of the American singer and 90’s pop icon have come out in force to comment on how “white” she appears in her latest Instagram offering.
Accusations of skin bleaching have been thrown around while others have been quick to diagnose her with body dysmorphia and pleaded for the hate to halt.
But the star’s physical transformation – which has been slowly taking place over a number of years – has sparked a wider debate about the prolific use of skin lightening products, and the belief that underpins it: that being less black means being more desirable, more beautiful and of course, more successful.
Colorism – or the discrimination of those with darker skin tones even among people of the same racial heritage – is the name of this belief.
African-American author Iyanla Vanzant describes colorism as “a consequence of internalization of a white-dominated society’s entrenched white racial preference”.
The phenomenon has its roots in the times of black enslavement, when mixed race children with fairer complexions were often favored and given more indoor work, while their darker skinned mothers were left to toil outside.
A much cited example is the existence (up until the 1950s) of “paper bag parties” at which a brown paper bag was pinned to the door and those whose skin was darker than it were turned away.
Even today in the US, influential black women are regularly suspected of having their skin digitally lightened before starring on the cover of glossy magazines.
Kerry Washington, Rihanna, Beyonce and Lupita Nyong’o are just a few names subjected to this treatment in recent years.
And the issue is by no means constrained to America, with skin lightening creams and treatments in South Asia and throughout Africa flying off the shelves.
According to a World Health Organization study in 2011, 61 percent of beauty products sold in India promise some element of skin lightening.
It is a $450 million market that’s beauty ideals are constantly being perpetuated by the famous faces young Indians look up to.
Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan has been the face of one such men’s product, Fair and Handsome, since 2007 and stars in commercials claiming he attained more success after using bleaching products.
Meanwhile after Indo-American beauty queen Nina Davuluri became the USA’s 2013 Miss Universe representative, in India she was widely deemed “too dark” to have had a chance at winning any South Asian beauty pageant where the winners circle is almost exclusively made up of fairer skinned contestants.
In China, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, skin lightening treatments are also popular with nearly 40 percent of women saying they use them, while in Nigeria, an incredible 77 percent of women regularly buy in.
That’s almost four out of every five Nigerian women that are spending years, in some cases a lifetime, applying chemical lighteners to their bodies to chase the notion that they will be more attractive and have a better life if they weren’t so black.
But it isn’t just the heartbreaking pursuit of an essentially unattainable beauty ideal that is the only damaging factor in this equation.
Mercury is a common ingredient in skin lightening products as it can inhibit the formation of melanin which results in lighter skin.
It can also cause kidney damage, anxiety, depression and psychosis.
Products containing the heavy metal have been banned by the World Health Organization but can often be found in less reputable stores and of course, online.