by Ellen Brookes
In a world where the standards of beauty are held explicitly by people of fairer complexion, a damsel, with her ebony hues, would be seen as substandard, under par, or, to put it simply, ugly. Therefore, in order to assimilate into an ideal beauty, she must find a herbal concoction that will lighten her features and allow her to fulfill her destiny.
This sounds like it should be the beginning of a sort of adventure-type fairytale; and yet, this is not the case.
This is the reality faced by many young people around the world today.
This is the reality that many young women feel they have to conform to in order to be successful.
Sure, there are young men who may feel the same, and older women too, but it’s the youth who are having their potential and their self-esteems curbed. Not only is it colorist, but it is gender-based. Women are more likely be targeted by advertising agencies for these reasons; women are more likely to be scrutinized for their looks; women are more likely for their success to be judged on the color of their skin, rather than their individual talents or merit, especially in places like the workplace. Women are the largest target audience for beauty products, because why look at what is on the inside without looking at what is being sold on the outside?
Because of consumer culture, where we are taught to sell ourselves into a market that’s demand is never satisfied, women are turning to any means to become the commodity of the moment. Being beautiful seems to equal employability, marriageability, and long-term success. To achieve this, white skin is a must – in the minds of these affected women.
This mentality of white is right has been around since the times of colonization, the time when the white man decided that having “white” skin was the epitome of civilized, and therefore the lighter you were the more “privilege” you were afforded (Glenn 2009). This mentality still exists today, in its more extreme forms, but this form is rarely ever addressed. The need for cosmetics and procedures to lighten ones skin can be seen as misplaced vanity, or as an unwanted legacy of imperialism, or a strange mixture of both. Despite the fact people realize that discrimination based on looks is universally wrong, there seems to be something keeping this mentality strong in the beliefs of women globally.
Globally is being used here, as cosmetic whitening products are a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. There is effectively no country where these creams and lotions are not sold, no matter legal status (Glenn 2009). This basically implies that, globally, women want whiter skin. This also uncovers a larger problem when someone explains what goes into the creation of the facial scrubs.
The main ingredients include mercury salts and hydroquinone, two highly toxic substances, and a large cocktail of steroids and copious amounts of other highly addictive substances, that work together to artificially lighten the skin (Ravichandran 2013). Women are being told that it is okay to put highly lethal powders onto their faces because society says so. Many women don’t know of the harm they are doing, but many also do. In a twisted form of vanity, these women believe that their health is worth less than their beauty (Anekwe 2014).
These women are vulnerable, already facing different stigmas of being of a darker color in their societies, and the markets are effectively preying on these women. I say ‘targeted’ because that is what it is. These women are being lured into a trap by these marketing agencies and are shown pictures of how their lives could be if they were lighter (Goldstein 2012). If you are put into a position where you can see everything you want in your grasp, you’d naturally do anything to get it.
Essentially we try to preach gender and race equality at the front of the stage, and then we sell the very things we are against at the back stage door. Is the contradiction clear?
But moving away from the social values that dictate the need for light skin and the dangers of obtaining light skin, I came across a speech, given by a woman who, only days later, received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Selby 2014). This speech that took everything that is wrong with what was ‘”safe” and “known” about skin color and turned it on its head. Singlehandedly, Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-born Kenya-raised actress who made her film debut in the acclaimed feature film “12 Years A Slave”, managed to raise a question, an opinion, about something that had been shoved under the rug for so long.
As mentioned previously, people never seem to speak out publicly about skin whitening. We never address the often superficial way in which we define what is beautiful. We never speak about the ensuing self-esteem issues, loss of opportunity, false consciousness and stigma that stem from societies where color is more than a shade; it’s a life sentence. Ms. Nyong’o speaks from experience, remembering in her speech a letter from a young girl who was about to purchase whitening cream, because one could not “be so black” in Hollywood, let alone be considered beautiful or successful (Nyong’o 2014). She speaks on the limitations she felt as a young person because she was quite distinctly “not white”, and places a large amount of emphasis on the images she had been force-fed by international media about the ideal beauty. She poses questions about why this is the “reality”, why this is thought to be a “fixed” ideal? For the young girl mentioned in the speech, Lupita Nyong’o was a beacon of hope that girls with “night-shaded skin” could be beautiful, or be a prominent figure in society for reasons other than her body. The message that everyone has potential, that no one standard of beauty is correct, and that is certainly is not worth dying for.
If only Ms. Nyong’o’s message could have come earlier, before the whitening industry became so large, and before the creams and powders and lotions became such a pivotal point of young women’s lives. Yet starting with this one girl, and maybe many more since then, the message that Lupita Nyong’o sends may revolutionize, or even save, many lives – we just need to let it be heard by the over one billion potential users of skin whitening creams for it to work and then we can start to take the “color” out of “colorism” and put it into “colorful”.
Anekwe, O. N. (2014). The Global Phenomenon of Skin Bleaching: A Crisis in in Public Health (Part 1). Voices in Bioethics. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://voicesinbioethics.org/2014/01/29/the-global-phenomenon-of-skin-bleaching-a-crisis-in-public-health-an-opinion-editorial-part-1/
Glenn, E. N. (2009). Consuming Lightness: Segmented Markets and Global Capital in the Skin-Whitening Trade. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference (pp 166-187). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press
Goldstein, R. (2012). Time for a reality check on skin lightening creams. The Conversation. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/time-for-a-reality-check-on-skin-lightening-creams-7770
Nyong’o, L. (2014). Lupita Nyong’o Delivers Moving ‘Black Women in Hollywood’ Acceptance Speech. Essence (Magazine). Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.essence.com/2014/02/27/lupita-nyongo-delivers-moving-black-women-hollywood-acceptance-speech/
Ravichandran, N. (2013). Skin whitening creams can cause long-term damage, doctors warn. The Daily Mail. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2384456/Skin-whitening-creams-cause-long-term-damage-doctors-warn.html
Selby, J. (2014). 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o on racism in beauty: ‘Every day I woke up hoping my skin was a little lighter’. The Independent. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/lupita-nyongo-on-racism-in-beauty-every-day-i-woke-up-hoping-my-skin-was-a-little-bit-lighter-9171487.html