There were the times I watched pregnant women in my community grab the hands of straight or curly haired, light-skinned people and rub those hands across their stomachs—so the “good” hair and light skin would rub off on the baby. There were the times people asked my sister and I if we had the same father, because I was lighter than she. There was also the fact that I was an early romance-novel reader; I wish now I had a nickel for all the mentions of “pale” or “alabaster” flesh (quivering flesh—it was always quivering flesh!)
And then there was the media—I was bombarded with images of black women who were attractive because of their long, straight hair, fair skin, and non-brown eyes.
The message sank in early—one of my first school memories is walking to my kindergarten classroom, hand-in-hand with my white classmate, Robin. I remember looking down at our clasped hands and wishing mine was more like hers.
I was four years old.
I began with a personal story, but the belief that lighter-is-better is a problematic one throughout black communities, particularly for black women. I remember, as a child, watching a Whoopi Goldberg monologue in which she was pretending to be a little girl. She, too desired lighter skin, and decided to try with chlorine bleach. “All I got,” her character said, “Was burned.” The character was half right—chlorine was not the solution, but bleaching was. And the agent of choice, increasingly in the U.S., was hydroquinone.
Flipping through old black newspapers and magazines, you can see the ads for Fashion Fair’s Vantex, Ambi, and Dr. Palmer’s. Back in the day, they were more to the point, promising to lighten and whiten the skin. In the aftermath of black pride movements, they promise that their 2% hydroquinone formulas will fade or lighten discolorations and give you a more even skin tone. How can we argue with that? Unspoken, of course, is that the undesirable “dark spot” in need of fading/lightening is the entirety of our brown and black skin. (Though, given the image at the top of this page, and the name of the product, you can give “Fair & White” credit for being honest, I suppose.)
I cannot pinpoint the moment that I realized that the lighter-is-better issue was an issue for many other WoC, either. In grad school, my friend Jesse—who was Mexican American—told me a story about his mother’s despair that his sister looked “native” while he himself was fairer. His uncle had tried to console his mom by reasoning, “At least she’s pretty.”
And then I began to read stories about various African countries in which skin bleaching was unbelievably popular—even after hydroquinone and the mercury used in some products caused burns, and other painful ailments, and were linked to conditions like ochronosis, which is marked by
marked by the darkening and thickening of the skin, as well as the appearance of tiny dome-shaped bumps and grayish-brown spots.Women in Mali reported being shunned if they didn’t use the product. And a hairdresser in Tanzania explained her use of skin bleach:
You hear that if you want to look beautiful, then you have to look like a white person and to look like a white person you have to use these creams.Asian women are targeted, as well—a couple of month’s ago Women’s E-news described an ad on Hong Kong’s public transit system:
One video you might easily find yourself staring at promotes lingerie and is made by the Japanese company Wacoal.And if you have the heart (and the stomach), you only have to click over to youtube to look at some of the Fair & Lovely ads for India.
In the lingerie ad, a serious young man first runs his hands over the bosom and buttocks of a thin woman with dark hair. He is then shown working in a futuristic laboratory crafting undergarments from his observations. In the final scene, an Asian woman with long blond hair and light skin wears a diaphanous gown to highlight her newly sculpted hourglass figure and turns to smile seductively at viewers: She has taken on Caucasian features.
Being lighter, being closer to white, makes PoC more successful, more confident, more attractive. That message is drummed into us over and over. So when Maegan drew my attention to the Ponds’ Flawless White series on youtube that posits that being lighter also helps you win your lost love! (and being darker makes you greedy and evuhl), I should not have been surprised.
But, well, damn. And so, without further ado, I bring you this nightmare*:
In each commercial, the Spokeswoman says:
Ponds Flawless White
Reduces dark spots and lightens skin in just seven days
Ponds Flawless White
Love’s Helping Hand
*I am also interested in the ways this intersects with class. In one of the articles I read about skin bleaching creams in Asia, the author noted that darker skin was associated with working outdoors and manual labor, a designation many women didn’t want. I am aware of a similar sentiment in my community. Then, in one of the articles about Africa, a doctor expressed the belief that skin bleaching was more prevalent among the less educated. This is problematic for lower socio-economic class women whose low wages mean they turn to cheaper products (often black market) that are even riskier and that they may spend a disproportionate amount of their income on these “beauty” products.