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.

Valuing Lightness and Darkness

by Karen Mori

This week’s reading might seem a historical fact of the rise and fall of the skin lighteners, but I think this history of the skin lightener is not so important. To me, the most essential part is the hidden desire for people to improve themselves for socio-economic reasons or embedded idea of beauty that can be seen through the use of skin lighteners. The author of the reading (Lynn Thomas) states that the spread of skin lighteners across the world is a result of U.S. commodities and ideologies of race which became a motivation to sell those products. This skin-lighteners market eventually became entangled with economic relations, and racial hierarchies gave a meaning to “whiteness” that it is better than being darker. The reason why the use of skin lighteners were so popular despite the fact that it is symbolizing whiteness=better is because of how society was structured and how society pushed the ideology of skin color through advertisement. As a result, Black women’s concept of beauty became deeply affected by Whites.

The author mentions that “it is difficult to discern whether such valuing of lighter colored skin was rooted in pre-colonial conception of beauty, a product of racial hierarchies introduced through colonialism and segregation, or entanglement of the two,” despite the fact that the author think the concept of skin color is affected by structural forces from advertisement and social hierarchy. When I read the reading, I definitely thought yes, the concept of “being white is better than being darker” is socially created through colonialism. However when I reflected to Japan, my country, I feel little uncomfortable when I think about valuing “Bihaku” (whiteness) is affected by the West.

I personally prefer being white for no reason but I don’t think being tan is not so bad because maybe I lived in America and Americans valued being tan. When I met my friend after summer break, she was really tan, and I said “Kurokunattane” meaning you got darker (not so offensive in Japanese) and she got so upset said “hidoi” (how mean you are). I was so surprised that darkness is considered bad in Japan. Anyway, saying that whiteness is valued in Japan, some people say that Japanese adoration toward the West since Meiji period to become modernized is still affecting our value of whiteness or taller nose or longer legs. I cannot believe that Japanese are affected by historical social structure. However, when I go back to the reading what I am saying is that Black Africans prefer to have light skin not because they are affected by White.