The obsession with skin-lightening: Is it ever okay to bleach?
By Lamees Al Mubarak
We’re forever being told by those who should know better that beauty is “only” skin deep. Well, for many black women and a few black men, that’s disturbingly deep. As Trading Standards convictions confirm that sales of illegal skin-lightening creams continue to soar in the UK, it looks like the politics of black beauty gets more complicated by the day. The era when skin-lightening was frowned upon as a self-hating practice is slipping away and many black people are being vocal about their desire to be lighter; they argue that it is a personal choice, just like the one white people make when they darken their skin by sunbathing. So what’s the problem here? And why does this issue make people (of all races) so nervous?
The comparison to sunbathing is particularly helpful when you look at the fact that both activities seem to be motivated by vanity and, for the sake of instant gratification, both can be extremely harmful to short-term and long-term health. But surely that’s where the similarity ends. Whether they like it or not, black women (and make no mistake; it is mainly women) bleach to change themselves and to edge ever closer to the dominant concept of beauty: Caucasian. It is a tacit admission of inferiority that’s a world away from a white woman playing at being temporarily darker.
Skin lightening is usually achieved using creams containing an illegal bleaching agent called hydroquinone which has been banned in the EU and in Switzerland since 2001. Nevertheless, as is the case with most illegal substances, you can still obtain creams containing hydroquinone fairly easily. In just one afternoon, I was able to find five North London cosmetics stores which stock illegal skin lightening creams behind the counter; it a simple case of supply and demand. There are also some rather dubious injections and pills which claim to lighten the skin very rapidly. You know the sort of thing I mean, products which are available from mysterious online pharmacies. Understandably, creams are far more popular.
I spoke to Dr. Sujata Jolly about the consequences of using these creams. Jolly is an expert in dermatology and wound care who has been campaigning against the use of skin-lightening products since the 1970s. She explained the reasons behind the ban of hydroquinone in over the counter cosmetics. “Use of this substance actually thins the skin and can cause temporary or permanent blotchiness, boils, uneven tone, grainy consistency, burns, hormonal imbalances and even kidney failure or skin cancer. I’ve seen people who have developed horrible skin injuries after one week of using the creams,” she said.
She also points out that hydroquinone doesn’t just inhibit the production of melanin in the skin as was originally thought. Newer studies have found that it actually destroys melanocyte cells which are necessary to produce melanin. That means that the creams can permanently stop your skin from being able to protect itself from UV damage. Even those bleaching creams which contain token amounts of sun protection don’t atone for the damage that they do, as sun cream ceases to be effective unless it is reapplied regularly, but the bleaching creams containing protection are only used once or twice a day.
Guardian journalist Hannah Pool wrote the first black beauty column in a British broadsheet. “I know why women use skin-lightening creams,” she said, “and it breaks my heart.” Yet, isn’t bleaching cream just another beauty product created by an industry which encourages us all to alter our bodies and hair? Many black women who bleach see it as another part of their beauty regime, an extension of putting on make-up and using hair products. I asked Pool why a perfectly acceptable black beauty choice such as chemically straightening one’s hair is ok, but skin-lightening isn’t. “It might be on the same scale, but lightening the skin points at a deeper psychological issue than hair straightening,” she explained. She feels strongly that stockists and advertisers are to blame for exploiting the pressures on darker women.
Significantly, creams containing hydroquinone are still legal and inexpensive all over Africa, in most of Asia (with the exception of Japan) and in the United States too. This gives stockists and advertisers plenty of legitimate scope to operate. It also makes things easier for covert suppliers of skin lighteners to loyal customers in the EU. For the opportunistic salesman who doesn’t fancy measuring chemicals in a pipette and making his own illegal concoction, it’s just a matter of asking someone to bring back a suitcase full of very cheap cream from wherever it is they have been and selling it out of a black bag to customers at ten times the price here in Britain (there is at least one man regularly doing this in a well known South London market).
In 2006, Yinka and Michael Oluyemi, a British couple who are originally from Nigeria, were fined a staggering total of £92,267 for selling skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone in their two Peckham stores, Yinka Bodyline and Beauty Express Ltd. The couple were also given suspended sentences of nine months each and banned from holding company directorship for five years. It is by far the most serious case of its kind in the UK to date.
Their prosecution was applauded by many, but it also prompted some to defend the right to use strong skin lighteners and resent the punishment of this successful black couple as racist as well as denouncing the law which bans harsh bleaching creams as unnecessarily paternalistic. There are still several active online forums dedicated to defending the Oluyemis’ crime. One woman writes: “Dnt knw wot to say but cnt believe the authority wnt to get £100,000 outta of this couple cos of ordinary BLEACHING cream. Wot abt those that destroy other people’s future by selling class A drugs???” (sic). Another woman comments: “Worashame! They are not the only ones who sell these products, all the other AFro beauty stores sell them too. I think they decided to pick on them because they are successful…£100,000 that is steep!!!” (sic)
Louise Sterrett is a UK-based psychotherapy researcher whose interest is in the relationship between the self and the outside world. She is currently studying skin lightening. I spoke to her about the pathological persistence of women who lighten their skin, ignoring the health risks. “Even if there were a balanced representation of women in regards to age, size, skin tone and hair texture in women’s magazines and ads, we are still influenced by aesthetic human differences,” she said. “And as long as there are the products and resources to change something aesthetically about ourselves (in regards to beauty) then it’s up to women to weigh out those options. Either they buy into it or not, based on their definition and measurement of beauty, and the more extreme they go, the more they need to explore why and empower themselves with information about their choices.”
So if they’re determined to bleach, shouldn’t they be guided through the process and encouraged to do it safely? I put this to Jolly who remained resolute that there is no safe way to bleach the skin: “Your skin is a certain tone for a reason. It’s nature’s way of protecting you. These creams force a physiological change in the body and prevent you from benefiting from your own natural protection. And it’s not a superficial or temporary change.”
Jolly despairs that, in extreme cases, it is possible to get skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone prescribed by a GP. “They say that it’s ok because it is under medical supervision, but that’s stupid. What does it even mean? The cream will still damage your skin.” When I continued to press her for a safe way to lighten the skin, she eventually burst out with: “Exfoliate! But don’t bleach.”
Indeed, you can exfoliate using exfoliator from Jolly’s own Radiance Skincare range for Asian skins. It leaves your melanin alone and contains completely natural ingredients such as rosemary and wild yam. But when an anti skin-lightening campaigner is involved in a product that “…evens off the darker complexions naturally” and a masque which “lightens the skin naturally” you know it’s a subject matter with no absolute rights or wrongs.
Whether it is natural or chemica
l, safe or dangerous (and frankly, I don’t think those who use it care), why does skin-lightening in all its forms still have so many black women under its spell, willing to risk the health of the body’s biggest organ? What is behind the “colour complex”? What causes the so-called “colour melancholia”?
You knew it was coming didn’t you. And, yes I am going to talk about slavery. Lighter skinned black slaves were of mixed race and could rely on their kinship to whites to guarantee better working conditions than dark skinned black slaves. Mixed ancestry often entitled them to work in the house instead of in the fields. It could lead to education or even emancipation. But that is just the historical context for blacks whose heritage is linked to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It doesn’t apply to African populations in the UK who are just as enthusiastic users of skin-lighteners as African-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. I suppose that is because colonial scars run as deeply as the scars of slavery.
But I’m not convinced that the past is entirely to blame; when all’s said and done, white colonisation and white enslavement of black populations has been over for a long time, yet skin-lightening grows in popularity. It’s not a fading vestige of the bad old days, but a thriving, multi-million dollar industry. Perhaps we’re reinforcing the shackles in our own minds?
The surprising and uncomfortable truth is that, to this day, lighter skinned blacks in the West tend to be more successful than darker skinned blacks of the same social and economic group. While European academics haven’t exactly flocked to publish in this area, American research on “colour stratification” is plentiful. One 1991 study by Cedric Herring and Verna Keith shows that black skin tone has a significant effect on education, occupation and income. Other studies suggest that lighter skinned blacks are more likely to have spouses with higher socioeconomic statuses than darker skinned blacks of the same class.
Faced with results like these, skin-lightening starts to sound like a pragmatic and rather business-like option based on the desire to excel in Western society. I suspect it’s also a futile way of reaching for the impossible, because despite the evidence on the advantages that lighter skinned blacks have had in the past and seem to have today, there is no evidence to suggest that people who have lightened their skin have gone on to be more fulfilled, professionally, economically, socially or emotionally.
But here’s the killer; much US academic research, including Mark E. Hill’s 2002 study “Skin Colour and the Perception of Attractiveness among African Americans: Does Gender Make a Difference?” (not to mention a quick glance at MTV, for example) shows that both inter-racially and intra-racially, lighter skinned black women are considered to be much more attractive than their darker skinned sisters. In addition, Maxine Thompson and Verna Keith have found that darker skinned black women are more likely to suffer from low self esteem and depression than black women with light skin.
Now we might prefer to trivialise beauty and the power of cosmetics, but the ugly truth is that in all races, attractiveness is still intrinsically linked to socioeconomic attainment and even happiness. So it’s safe to say that once subjective and inherently unequal standards of beauty are thrown into the mix, any notion that consistent skin bleaching is a straight forward or rational activity goes up in smoke.
“But that’s life!” I hear you cry, exasperated by all this hand wringing and harking back to historical un-pleasantries. And you’re right of course. While it might be preferable to have hundreds of very dark skinned black women running big business and being idolised by fashion, film and popular culture next to the Rihannas and Beyoncés out there, as things stand now we can’t all be wheat-coloured Amazonian goddesses – and that should be absolutely fine. But for those who can’t come to terms with this reality and won’t delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores, skin-lightening is a way of changing the unchangeable.
And here is where I think we find the root of all the nervousness around this topic; black women prefer to be lighter skinned because our own perception of beauty has been conquered by a white ideal. There should be no shame in admitting that our minds aren’t free and doing something about it, but who wants to face up to a stomach-churning reality like that? It’s easier to look away and rub a bit of cream on twice a day. Or maybe the bleachers should pause and consider Pool’s sincere advice to: “Take the money you spend on skin-lightening and spend it on some therapy instead.”
Story originally run on Seven Magazine.