By 2015, the global market for a certain group of drugs is projected to reach $10 billion. These drugs, including hydroquinone, clobetasol, and mercury creams, have an alarming side effect profile, potential carcinogenic effects, and almost no medical indications for long-term use. Yet worldwide, these medications are so coveted that illegal markets flourish in areas where retail and pharmaceutical distribution of the drug has been banned. Across the United States, physicians have noticed an increase in the severe complications associated with overuse of these drugs. The high being chased here isn’t euphoria or hallucinations. It’s whiteness.
Skin lightening, a practice that has affected many women of color, has a powerful historical basis in black communities. Pre-emancipation, lighter-skinned slaves were given less degrading work and were valued more highly by white slaveowners. Following the abolishment of slavery, lighter skinned black people comprised the “Negro elite” in American society. Thus a terrible paradox emerged in which black people were pressured to erase parts of their identity in order to establish themselves as a respected and legitimate identity in American society. As often happens with issues of appearance, women faced the greatest burden of this pressure to be light. As argued in a Journal of Pan African Studies editorial on the history of skin bleaching, a “white-constructed beauty culture [became the] means to an end- social, political, and economic freedom.”
During the early 20th century, skin lightening became a cosmetic staple within some communities of color in the United States. The African American beauty industry from this time period is revealing about the roots of this practice. White manufacturers dominated the industry and consequently projected racist white cultural ideals into depictions of African American beauty. Media overwhelmingly depicted dark-skinned black women as sexless, aggressive, unattractive, and unfeminine. With the introduction of skin lightening products, the beauty industry propagated a new portrayal of African American femininity: a refined and light-skinned genteel.
Skin bleaching advertisements directed at black women often carried sketches of white-looking women. Ads insisted that black women could increase their social popularity and sexual desirability with a “whitened complexion” through products like Snow White Bleaching Cream. Readers were inundated with promises of lighter, brighter, whiter skin, along with warnings that makeup cannot hide a “poor” complexion and “dark color problems.” In an effort to reclaim black womanhood from the derogatory depictions of the past, magazines by and for African Americans such as Ebony and The Messenger also adopted this light-skinned view of beauty. Skin lightening has been compared to sun tanning in the Caucasian population, but the origin of tanning is often credited to a fashion fad started by Coco Chanel. Thus tanning, however physically dangerous, is far less socially problematic than skin lightening. Consequently, skin-lightening practices must be addressed with the understanding that this is not simply a cosmetic fad.
The sad social injustices underlying skin lightening are compounded with the dangerous complications of the practice itself. Prolonged hydroquinone use can result in a disfiguring skin condition called ochronosis in which the skin is marked with blue-black discoloration. There is ongoing concern about the potential carcinogenic effects of hydroquinone based on numerous animal studies. Chronic mercury use can have neurological and nephrotoxic effects. Clobetasol and other skin lightening corticosteroids can result in diabetes, hypertensive disorders, and addiction syndromes. Still the skin lightening market continues to grow in countries like the United States, driving these health problems along with it.
While overt endorsement of lighter skin is no longer socially acceptable, racism still overwhelms North American depictions of beauty and power. Media agents like Elle magazine, L’Oreal commercials, and Columbia Records have recently been accused of digitally lightening the skin of black celebrities like Gabourey Sidibe and Beyoncé Knowles. According to a recent study conducted at Villanova University, after controlling for several factors, having darker skin correlated with an 11% increase in prison time among black women. The 2011 documentary film “Dark Girls” explores the social ostracism, discrimination, and bullying suffered by dark-skinned women in modern-day United States. This painful remnant of colonialism and slavery has proven to be an enduring one.
Skin lightening is a tragic but reasonable response to the narrow American representation of beauty, power, and womanhood. The idea that lightened skin can improve a person’s life in the United States is not unfounded. Before individuals are blamed for using dangerous skin lightening drugs, changes must come in media and institutional approaches to race, especially for women. Based on historical and current ideas in American society, skin-lightening products allow entry into a more accepted, respected, and desired sect of society. Regardless of health complications, that’s a tough high to walk away from.
Niresha Velmurugiah is a medical student at the University of Alberta and a Staff Writer for the Akili Initiative. Her current projects include creating an education program for high school students on sexual violence and organizing learning forums for reproductive and sexual health at her medical school.