The Politics of Complexion Costing Black Women Big Time

Our world is fixated on body images of women, pressuring women to meet certain standards to be considered attractive. Women with slim bodies, straight nose, straight hair and light skin are presented as models and beautiful women by the media, fashion industries and other cultural forms. Everyday women of all color attempt to meet these standards, falling prey to weight loss, cosmetics and beauty industries offers and promises to help them attain those standards. Since these yardsticks of beauty are close to Eurocentric images of women, some of the adjustments women of color, specially black women, have to consider demand them to change their very nature. Even though some black women have been recently recognized as beautiful in the fashion and entertainment world, the fact remains that almost all of them are light-skinned and somehow bear closer facial features to European looks rather than African ones.

Recently, Tyra Banks brought a group of black women to her show, who declared they bleach their skin for beauty purposes, to appear lighter and fair skinned. One of the women inherited the legacy of bleaching from her mother, which she is determinedly passing to her three young boys. The other said she opted to marry an Asian so that her kids wouldn’t come out as dark as her. The other one who tried cloth bleach on her face said she would go under any procedure, no matter how risky it could be, if she could get her skin a little shade lighter.

The reasons these women give for using dangerous skin bleaches generally fall under ‘seeking acceptance’ from peers, boyfriends, colleagues and generally by the society, which gives them the impression that as dark people, they will not be considered attractive. Mainly, these women are victims of the society, which perpetuates a certain standard for ‘beauty’ and generally terms black people’s skin color, facial features and hair textures as not attractive. It is a result of colonial mentality that is highly promoted by the media and of course by cosmetics industries that exploit this ‘mentality’ for their own big profits.

It is not only black women in America that are pressurized to become fairer and whiter. African, Jamaican and Asian women are also purchasers and users of skin lightning products. In most of these places, skin color goes hand in hand with status, marriage and occupation. The lighter one is the better.  For example, according to a survey from the usage of bleaching products in Lagos was documented as 77%.

Unlike what most of us might think, obsession with lighter skin is not a recent phenomenon. White women used to use lightning lotion to appear whiter and in turn imply that they are of ‘high class, education and leisure’. The implication of using lightning lotions by black women and white women totally differ. While for the former it means changing what they are, for the latter it means maintaining what they are. Rondilla and Spickard, in their book entitled ‘is lighter better: skin tone discrimination among Asian Americans’ explain that the Eurocentric standards of beauty that pressure black people to prefer light skin ‘enhanced their subordination by forcing black women to strive for an impossible ideal- a racial transformation –while allowing White Woman to retain their power. Ironically, this fact seems to be changing these days with more white people spending a lot of money in tanning booths and beds, in spite of the outcry that tanning is highly associated with skin cancer. This poses a question why do white people try to get a little shade darker while black people try to appear a little hue lighter?

The answer lies in what the world is made to accept as beautiful and desirable, which the cosmetics and beauty industries exploit for their own benefits.  The market is of course targeted largely at woman.  Eurocentric standards of beauty push women to appear lighter and skinnier. Just like the millions of dollars that are being generated from weight loss pills, the skin ‘care’ industry targets black women, who are pressured from many angles that dark isn’t beautiful. The market goal that target white people to tan is the same, but the political implications of bleaching and tanning might not mean the same. Any person who goes for tanning wouldn’t want to be dark, but rather pale, which is assumed looking healthier. But, it is probable that any black person who chooses to bleach her/his skin, would want to be white if given the chance. This makes the politics of bleaching and tanning totally different.

Black celebrities are not helping the situation, but aggravating it. Mostly, light skinned blacks are more likely to succeed and they are still highly pressured to change their appearances. The more they have European looking facial features and lighter skin, the more likely they succeed. A good example for this could be Michael Jackson, whom some accuse of self-hatred and identity crisis. Others defend him stating that the only thing he suffered from is the Vitiligo disease. In response to this the former ones demand explanation why MJ opted to change the shape of his nose or chose to have white kids, if his problem was skin disease. Even though Michael’s transformation is one of the most obvious examples, many black celebrities have also changed themselves. The rapper Lil Kim for example is unrecognizable from her old looks with a pointing nose and fair skin ( see Lil Kim before and after here). There are rumours that even the lighter skinned celebrities like Beyoncee, Halle Barry and Rihanna use bleaching creams to appear lighter than they are.(see photos that claim to show the transformation). Weather these rumours are true or not, the fact is these public figures are made to appear lighter than they are on magazine covers and other publications.

Internalized racism in the form of skin bleaching should be something that black communities fight dearly.  What happened to the movement ‘Black is Beautiful’ that was so famous in the 60s and made Afro style famous? Bleaching is not the only practice that is testing black’s appearance crisis. The long and straight weaves also pose many questions related to race (which makes Tyra herself a victim as much as her guests in her bleaching and beauty session). But the cost being paid for complexion is far more than that because of its healthy risks. Skin cancer and many chronic diseases are becoming much related with bleaching ‘skin care’ products. Of course, poor women would end up paying these cost since the cheaper ones are more dangerous than the ones that might be used by rich celebrities.

Banning these products might be a solution, but the only long term way out could be sought only by curing the enslaved and colonized mind. Until then, black women ( and men too) would keep on trying to achieve the preferred complexion, which apparently is costing their money, their health and their heritage.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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