The appeal of skin lighteners in South Africa: a racial and gender issue

by Joana Ito

In 1991, most skin lighteners were banned from the South Africa’s market, as a result of the Black movements’ criticism against the structural racism, allied to the arguments of health concerns. However, as a report of UNEP showed in 2008, the racial and medical arguments were not sufficient to erase the appeal of the skin lighteners: 35% of the women in South Africa were still regular users of skin lightener products.

The racial/color discrimination element regarding the use of skin lighteners can be clearly identified, as the lighter skin is valued more, while the darker skin is considered less desirable. For that reason, consumers of skin lighteners in South Africa are in many occasions described as “sellouts”, who act against the interests of black as a whole, by denying their own “blackness”; and often accused of committing “racial betrayal”. It is relevant to note however that, as the consumption of skin lighteners is concentrated in the female population, the discussion around the use of these products cannot be limited to the issue of political awareness of race, nor in terms of racial pride and shame.

The behavioral change regarding the use of skin lighteners faces many obstacles, as the appeal of these products is based on multiple factors. According to Thomas (2009), the use of skin lighteners is mostly related to utilitarian motivations (such as for better social position, job and marriage opportunities) and to abstract perceptions of beauty, influenced by both traditional pre-colonial values, and the values rooted in the historical past of colonization, segregation and apartheid. Consequently, when the question of the use of skin lighteners is presented in narrow terms of white-black discrimination, it may exclude the consideration of constraints and limitations that many of those women could face, if they were not to confirm to the socially constructed ideals of beauty. According to Glenn (2008), while men are more likely to be considered valuable when they have wealth, education and other forms of human capital, women are considered valuable when they are physically attractive, even if they lack other capital. For that reason, the relative cost to “not betray the race” and not use skin lighteners, in this case, can be considered higher for black women, as their life opportunities may be more affected by the beauty standards of their society.

To modify the individual perceptions of self-esteem and pride regarding their own race is a first step to tackle the remaining racial discrimination challenges in South Africa. Nevertheless, when the parameters of physical attractiveness and beauty defined by the society can strongly influence the life opportunities of the women, the problem is not only about race, but also about gender. If the aesthetic parameter (determined by a male dominated society) were less relevant to determine the social position and value of these women, wouldn’t they feel less compelled to use skin lighteners and have more incentive to become more “loyal” towards their own race?


Glenn, E. N. (2008). Yearning for lightness: Transnational circuits in the marketing and consumption of skin lighteners. Gender & Society, 22(3), 281-302.

Thomas, L. (2009). Skin Lighteners in South Africa: Transnational Commodities and Technologies of the Self.” In Evelyn Nakano Glenn, ed., Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. Palo Alto: Stanford University of Press, 188-209.

UNEP (2008). Mercury in products and wastes. Geneva, United Nations Environment Programme, Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, Chemicals Branch.

Sources of preferences for whiter skin

by Kana Masaki

The main discussions in the chapter by Lynn Thomas are the use of and opposition to skin lighteners in South Africa. Skin lighteners were used by people in America at first to conceal blemishes and whiten their skin tone, and skin lighteners spread to South Africa too. Skin lightener advertisements in magazines spread it even more. South African women bought skin lighteners for higher status. In interwar South Africa, segregationist emphasized white skin supremacy. This led to the racial categories and this historical background is the reason why some women in South Africa bought to get a higher status. On the other hand, some people argue that they use skin lighteners, because they simply want to look beautiful and attractive and tend to prefer lighter skin traditionally. The author says that it’s difficult to discern whether lighter skin preference comes from precolonial conceptions of beauty or they come from racial hierarchies brought during colonialism. There are political opposition and medical opposition. The political opposition was using skin lighteners are a racial betrayal and self – loathing. The medical opposition was a health concern. People knew that these whitening or lightening creams contain toxic ingredients such as ammoniated mercury.

Same as South African women’s case, Japanese women also prefer white skin. Does white skin preference in Japan also come from the country’s historical background, or is just a traditional conception of beauty? Japanese women spend a lot of money on buying so–called bihaku cosmetics. Why do they spend so much money on such cosmetics? I guess having white skin was a traditional conception of beauty. There is a famous proverb, “irojiro wa hichinan kakusu,” meaning having a white skin can make you look attractive even though you have other faults. In other words, white skin can hide your faults and make you attractive. Also, it’s said that geisha has a really white skin as an exaggeration of Japanese beauty. These may prove that a white skin preference is just a traditional conception of beauty. On the other hand, I guess maybe it is not. The introduction of westernization during Meiji period could be a cause of white skin preference in Japan. The government tried to westernize everything in Japan at the time. For example, they made all men cut off chonmage to catch up with the West. They tried to westernize Japan to make a civilized Japan. I guess this made people think that looking like western people are cool, therefore having a white skin is the best.

Tomorrow in class, Karen and I want to have a discussion about whether light skin preference in South Africa comes from precolonial conceptions of beauty, racial hierarchies during colonialism or the mixing of both.

Unquestioned assumptions in skin lighteners

by Jun Sakakibara

This chapter showed that how the Philippine’s skin color consciousness reminds uniqueness since it is influenced by its historical background and shaped by the media’s effects caused by globalization. It was explained that in the Philippines, “skin lightening” does not always refer to “skin whitening”, and because East Asian or Chinese Asian looks are considered as ideal images of beauty, “being Asian” should be respected. However, I found it contradicting that the fact some people keep complaining that they are not white enough yet. If “being Asian” is fine, shouldn’t we represent our yellow skin color?!

By pointing out the characteristic of skin lightening companies’ strategies on advertisements in Asia, we can see how they have been spreading the market with using and brainwashing people with “unquestioned assumptions”. They emphasize the idea of “Euroasian” as promoting half-European, half-Asian models in advertisements, however, it is actually making concept of beauty so ambiguous. It was mentioned that “Euroasian” would be a new beauty regime. The paradox here is that there is nothing “new” about since its idea is very exclusive and Eurocentric. The models are European-looking women who are just covered with Asian straight black hair and are representing very much of their whiteness. In addition to this repacking of white-is-beautiful concept, skin products companies justify themselves by arguing “lightening” and “bleaching” are different thus there is nothing wrong to consume skin lightening products. Yet it is questionable whether there is an absolute difference between these two words. For the companies, wave of globalization is very great profitable source to spread their market worldwide, though, we have to understand that due to negative effects of globalization, our images are totally controlled so that we are being those who strengthen the racism or discrimination towards skin color and push the whiteness into much higher social status in fact.

When we discuss about whether this worldwide skin lightening phenomena is needed to be stopped or whether we are even able to stop that, I always think since such “unquestioned assumptions” remind “unquestioned” or are tend to be ignored to discuss, the situation itself would never be changed. I guess people are now realizing the paradox or problems behind the assumptions little by little, however, because usage of skin lightening products somehow lead us to happiness, we cannot get rid of them. Although it is a very complicated issue, the first thing we have to do is to accept the existence of “unquestioned assumptions” and to bring them into the discussion. We do not need to go straight for the discussion of the necessity of skin lightening products. We need to understand what we are exactly doing by investigating our money on those products and to learn how they can be problematic at the same time. I assume that this process holds very important key for the discussion of not only the skin lightening products but also of skin color consciousness in general as well.