SKIN LIGHTENING: Global Epidemic
Skin lightening is no longer just a subject of hot debate within several minority communities throughout North America. The research firm Global Industry Analysts expects the skin lightener market to reach $10 billion by 2015.
Words: Jessica Bennett + Aimstar
It’s relatively easy to name at least one public figure that has chosen to not only brighten up certain unsightly blemishes, but to change their skin tone entirely. The most well known example would be the late Michael Jackson, who before our eyes went from a bronzed pre-teen to an ivory middle-aged man. While Jackson’s life was plagued with several alleged questionable practices, one that was undeniable was the lightening of his skin over time, and how it came to be. On a 1993 taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Jackson revealed that he suffered from Vitiligo, a condition that causes skin to lose pigmentation, resulting in irregular white patches that feel like normal skin. But rarely if ever does Vitiligo result in a total change of skin color consistently all over the body. From this, it is assumed that Jackson lightened the parts of his skin that were not affected by the condition to make his skin appear evenly toned. If this is the case, and that’s all there is to it, than it is certainly understandable. However, there has always been considerable speculation that Jackson didn’t like his natural skin tone, and that he also resented his African-American features as well. Was Jackson, like so many minorities around the world, convinced by the images that he saw in the media that implied he was not good enough in his own skin? The answer varies depending on whom you ask, but the social implications of skin lightening run deeper than the surface.
Understanding the real desire to lighten skin, and the roots of that desire is essential in assessing the situation within today’s society. While arguably, it has always been masked under the veil of achieving true “beauty”, as always, the core of the problem is far less superficial. Throughout American history lighter skin has long carried social advantages. From slavery, where lighter-skinned slaves were given “easier” jobs, to the Civil Rights era, where being able to “pass” for White spared you from race-based trepidation, the system of equalities was surely unbalanced. The idea that those of a darker hue must wear their melanin-rich (the pigment causing agent in the human body that has since been found to hold many advantages) skin tones as badges of dishonor (and often considered subhuman because of it) fueled tension within Black communities, and sparked degrading practices like the brown paper-bag test, a color-measurement ritual that afforded fairer skinned folk an opportunity to discriminate more readily.
But the myth of “American Beauty”—porcelain skin, straight, luxurious blonde hair, thin facial features and blue eyes—imposed on minorities, fostered by colonization and strengthened by the media, was not limited to just the States. The theory and practice continues to be enforced worldwide today, leaving several people around the world in a dash to lighten their skin in rapidly increasing numbers.
In a trailer for the upcoming documentary Dark Girls directed by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, Black women from various walks of life reveal their personal hang-ups and deep-seated issues with being of a darker hue. One woman confesses, “I can remember being in the bathtub asking my mom to put bleach in the water, so that my skin would be lighter and so that I could escape the feelings I had about not being as beautiful, as acceptable, as lovable.”
The Middle East is no stranger to this. Nor is India, which now has one of the largest concentrations of people who embrace skin lightening and whose history is just as, if not more complicated than the American one.
In early times, Aryans, a type of light-skinned Indian, took over much of the country’s northern region. There they started a rigid caste system based on social status, education, profession—and of course, they placed themselves at the top. It’s important to note that the complexion of Indians can range from as dark as West Africans to as light as Northern Europeans, but the Aryans’ discriminatory program sparked a greater attraction to light skin. Like in America, having light skin showed that you were most likely not a laborer “who worked out in the sun”. British colonialism continued to perpetuate this train of thought and years later it is clearly still a factor.
Caribbean countries also have a deep, torrid love affair with lighter skin. Jamaica has recently experienced a drastic rise in skin bleaching among its population. And while the practice has been happening for years, many are now looking to point the blame. Public figures including former Baltimore Orioles player Sammy Sosa and Dancehall artist Vybz Kartel, have willingly admitted to lightening their skin.
“This is my new image,” Kartel said in an interview. “You can expect the unexpected. I feel comfortable with Black people lightening their skin. They want a different look. It’s tantamount to White people getting a sun tan.”
While it is quite possible to give detailed histories of several nations, and the desire of its people to have lighter skin, the matter is not just about skin. As with our example of Michael Jackson, often times other features are deconstructed or “thinned” in an effort to look more European. That includes smaller noses, longer, straighter hair and even eyelid surgeries in some Asian communities. In Korea and China, the trend is to go for big, anime-like round eyes that so many are led to believe are the most beautiful. Indeed, it is not all about skin, but an overall statement that when it comes to expressing beauty, power, economic status, the world favors a certain look.
But do all people who choose to lighten their skin do so because they feel ashamed of their heritage, or because they think it will help them get a leg up in society? There are certainly medical reasons for why one might undergo a procedure, or even use prescription strength creams to address their skin tone.
“Hyperpigmentation is when an area of the skin has more pigment than it naturally should, making certain areas darker than others,” says Dr. Susan Evans, director of Dermatology at Cosmetic Physicians of Beverly Hills. “It’s prominent in African-Americans, and can result from any number things our skin goes through.”
According to Dr. Evans, there are safer ways to address this particular skin problem.“The first step would be to simply protect those dark spots from the sun. Do that by putting sun block on those particular spots in the morning, and wearing sunscreen, no matter your skin tone. Many darker skinned people don’t think it’s necessary, but they are susceptible to skin damage as well.”
For those who would like to properly correct hyperpigmentation, there are over the counter remedies that are available as well. However, do read the fine print, Evans says.“Hydroquinone is a common brightening agent in skin lightening creams that has caught some flack over the years for being damaging in high doses,” Dr. Evans explains. Elaborating further, “OTC topical creams usually do not contain more than two percent hydroquinone, and when used correctly and not abused, can be very effective in lightening dark spots. Other ingredients to look on packaging would be licorice extract and niacin.”
Lightening small dark spots, such as an old chicken pox scar, is perfectly acceptable by most. But it is when individuals feel the need to lighten their entire face and/ or body that serious physical and psychological damage can and will take place. Dr. Evans explains.
“Some of the damage that can result from misuse includes permanent scarring of the skin, too much absorption into your bloodstream and extreme sensitivity to the sun which can cause many long term problems.”
In extreme cases, such as with the routine skin bleaching by those in many African nations like Tanzania and Ghana, the damage is even more severe. Why? African nations are often the dumping grounds for products that were deemed unsafe by American and European standards.
Dr. Kelly M. Lewis, a Georgia State University (GSU) professor, is the founder of GlobeCoRe Inc., a consulting and research firm specializing in a broad array of management consulting and research service solutions for government and public/private sectors. Among these services, are global expeditions to Tanzania that expose students and professionals to the practice of skin bleaching and the historical institutions (East African slave trade, colonization, globalization) that shape the practice. “Americans don’t really know much about the East African slave trade and how instrumental it was in shaping beauty standards in East Africa and the practice of skin bleaching,” Lewis says.
As part of her commitment to expanding the dialogue, she created the Psychology of Skin Bleaching in Tanzania: From Slavery to Colonization to Contemporary Motivations (10th Century-Today) study abroad program for students at GSU, that allows travelers to speak directly to the people who actually engaged in skin bleaching process by asking them why and how they have chosen to undergo the treatment. “It also gives them context to why they’re doing the things that they’re doing, by not just reading about it, but actually visiting the places where the historical events happened. We travel to Zanzibar (an island off the coast of East Africa) and visit the slave caravan and market where slaves were stored and sold, Prison Island where slaves were held illegally after slavery was outlawed and the colonial forts that served as major settlements for colonizers of Tanzania. We visit local hospitals and clinics to learn about the care of patients and what conditions skin bleachers may face when they begin to experience complications. We meet with the leading government agency (Tanzania Food & Drug Authority) that regulates the export/import of these types of products to explore what they are trying to do legally to break the cycle and if it is or is not working. To verify whether or not the TFDA’s strategy is working, we usually end the tour by looking for products that are supposedly outlawed [in surrounding markets, pharmacies, beauty supply stores] to see how readily available they are on the shelves,” Lewis explains.
Some products are manufactured exclusively for African clients, and more often than not, contain dangerous levels of Hydroquinone. Dermatologist and founder of Rabito Skin Clinics in Ghana, Dr. Edmund Delle speaks on the worst that could happen when bleaching the skin.
“The most serious thing… is that bleaching can cause death. I was the first dermatologist in the world to associate the two and now, after all these years, we’ve discovered cases of cancer due to bleaching.” Other health implications include kidney disorders, increased chances of miscarriage, and increased susceptibility to several skin diseases and allergies.”
Dr. Delle has been quoted as saying that he’s encountered women who visit his clinic in Accra from all over the continent, offering him large sums of money to lighten their skin. He also readily admits that he’s had patients who feigned illness just so that they could be given steroid creams or injections that produce skin-lightening side effects.
Dr. Evans has also been asked if her services include treatments to lighten the entire body. Outside of treating skin diseases such as Vitiligo where over 50% of the skin has already lost pigment, it is considered malpractice for a doctor to distribute prescription strength brightening agents for reasons of vanity. Of course, celebrities and their bank accounts can work wonders, which does nothing but encourage others, with and without money, to lighten their skin, even if it means creating homemade concoctions consisting of anything from milk and toothpaste, to bleach and cement—basically anything that has a corrosive effect on skin.
Dr. Lewis sees this regularly during her tours. She has become most familiar with mkorogo, a popular, toxic skin bleaching concoction in East Africa that is made up of battery acid, lemon juice, washing powder, toothpaste and any other household products that one can buy off the shelves to create a lightening effect. “It’s causing lots of health concerns from liver and kidney disease, cancers, ochronosis (black and blue coloring of the skin), to scabies, which are parasitic mites. In addition to the psychological implications, the problem with extensive use of these creams is that the skin begins to thin and isn’t able to repair itself, if/when they are hurt, and they can actually bleed to death.”
While vanity is a simple scapegoat, there are several deeply rooted reasons behind cultural ideas of skin color. No matter how dark or fair you are born, it is far more important to have healthy skin than unhealthy skin of a particular shade. While it may seem naïve to think that we can reverse such negative thinking, as with any movement, it will take a few strong voices to break the cycle of self-loathing.
It is true; the idea of beauty must change, and must be expanded to include a wide range of types. It should also be stressed that there is nothing in a bottle that can validate a person’s existence. Perhaps then, the only true way to remedy the problem is to uphold inner beauty as an individual’s greatest resource, teach self-love to current and future generations, and just maybe we save many from the psychological and physical damage that skin lightening causes for generations to come.