by Marcel Koníček
Before I took my international sociology class, I had never heard about skin lightening and the issues connected to it. I did not even imagine that something like that could even exist. Well, my ignorance is not as surprising considering I am a man coming from ethnically uniform Central European country not really interested in recent trends in cosmetics in other parts of the world. However, after reading about the issue I have quickly realized how widely spread and dangerous this trend is.
For those of you who have not heard about skin lightening, it is a practice done in many parts of the world, where people (mostly women) use cosmetics, containing usually either heavy metals or hormones, that change the skin tone towards the fair end of the skin tone spectrum. Prolonged use can lead to many illnesses and can permanently damage the skin. However, many are willing to pay the price.
Of course, people all over the world are doing many different beauty practices that are not good for their health, so this might be somewhat unsurprising. What is so interesting about it is that it is a phenomenon that connects many dissimilar cultures such as Philippines, African countries, African Americans, and even Japan and Korea. Why would people in all these places want to appear whiter, even though import of the whitening substances is banned in their countries?
Evelyn Nakano Glenn is saying that this is comes from mixing of preexisting preferences for fair skin, relicts of colonial supremacy and modern consumer capitalism. Being whiter gives them better chances at getting a job or being a better match for marriage. I agree with this statement and it is quite eminent, that we actually live in an age of “white normality” where any other skin colour than Caucasian white is considered something undesirable, something that you should and can change about yourself. It is true that for example Europe is full of tanning beds but tanning does not influence your racial identity, which does not have to be true for somebody like African Americans.
The huge rise in the industry of skin whitening and the idea of white normality in the current world is in my opinion tightly connected to two things: globalization of pop culture and rising buying power of the middle class in third world countries. The rise of relatively affluent middle class in countries such as India has created hundreds of millions of consumers of skin lightening products, who previously did not have enough disposable income to buy them. The globalized pop culture is what keeps the trend accelerating. All summer blockbusters that Hollywood sells to us are full of unrealistically attractive white women and the smaller entertainment industries all over the world have already adopted the American ideals of beauty – this is clearly visible in the Korean pop scene, where all the young idols have the same surgically altered face – face that is maybe less Asian and more Caucasian.
We do not have to go as far for a good example – let’s have look at an African American pop star, Nicki Minaj, and the cover of her new single. Her hair looks very Caucasian and her skin tone actually looks almost whiter than my own skin. I am sure that this is not an accident but a careful choice of background, lighting, cosmetics and photo editing. Everything with the goal to make her look as white as she can without losing too much of her racial background. If even the artist of what some people call “black music” has to look white on the cover of her single to give the right impression, how white must be an Indian woman to be considered a good match for a preferably wealthy husband?
This question is very worrisome and I do not know how to solve this problem or even if it can or should be solved in some reasonable way. However, it shows the ways how media, economic development of third world countries and perception of beauty can influence the behavior of people worldwide.