“Light is bright
White is right”
This belief holds true in many societies where to attain “brightness” and “rightness,” people try to lighten their complexion through various means. This cosmetic reduction of melanin content – colloquially termed “Skin lightening” or quite bluntly, “bleaching,” is a common form of potentially harmful body modification practices.
The products used to lighten one’s skin commonly contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids, mercurial substances and other caustic agents (Sodium hypochlorite, salicylic acid, detergents etc.) and are readily available in beauty supply stores, pharmacies, salons and informal markets. These products are not without their adverse side effects.
For example, Hydroquinone (originally employed as an industrial chemical) is used because of its effectiveness in suppressing the production of melanin. However, using this product as a skin lightening technique is dangerous because exposure to the sun after application leads to skin damage. Paradoxically, long-term hydroquinone use can lead to increased pigmentation of the skin; simply put – your skin becomes darker than it originally was. Other serious complications include loss of skin elasticity and impaired wound healing.
In the same vein, the use of corticosteroids is associated with eye disorders such as glaucoma and cataracts. Their use is also linked to skin ailments such as allergic contact dermatitis, eczema, atrophy of the skin and bacterial, viral and fungal infections. In addition use of corticosteroids can induce hypertension and diabetes.
Some countries have banned mercurial substances because they are toxic. Mercury poisoning may manifest in a range of symptoms including, but not limited to, psychiatric, neurological and kidney problems.
But with all these negative effects, skin lightening continues. Indeed, in order to maintain the lightening effects of these products, users often become dependent on skin lighteners. As if to trap you in a vicious cycle, most of the products indicate that any attempts to discontinue use may result in an “immediate flare-up of unsightly rashes.” Compounding this, with the stigma shrouding the use of skin lightening products, when users suffer any of the above symptoms, they are more likely to rebound and continue use rather than to seek medical attention. This is also and particularly common in users who stop using the products and suffer from withdrawal signs… and so the cycle continues.
How did we get here? Some context
The racialism that characterised colonisation and continues today contributes to the preference for a lighter skin tone. Establishing a racial hierarchy in which dark-skinned Zimbabweans were considered primitive and inferior to light-skinned Europeans was a key method of control during the colonial period. Racial hierarchy justified unequal distribution of resources, domination and exploitation.
Eurocentric beauty standards have long framed the white body as pure, delicate and clean. The representation of whiteness was that of virtue and as aesthetically the most appealing so that whiteness became the norm: The standard. Meanwhile, blackness became the “other”: deviant, corrupt and unappealing. Colonised people’s cultures and body images were constructed as pathological, backward and ugly. Blackness was associated with moral darkness, unrestrained sexuality, pollution, dirt and disease.
Racial hierarchies persist today, long after colonial rule, as has the racially stratified distribution of power and status. Western influence, such as the mainstream global media, in the form of magazines and television continue to flood African communities thereby perpetuating these beliefs. Media images still portray lighter skin as beautiful and preferable over darker skin. Until recently, the cosmetic industry produced cosmetics for light-skinned people alone, thereby reinforcing the association between light skin, beauty and affluence. It isn’t a coincidence that the use of skin lightening products is increasing in places where modernisation and the influence of western culture and capitalism are most prominent.
Racial capital only makes sense in a racist society where light skin and white bodies are valued over dark skin and African bodies. The concept of racial capital is connected to the larger systems of racism and colourism. Racism operates at the level of racial category where people in a given category experience institutional discrimination regardless of composition, and colourism operates within the system of racism and differentiates how subordinate groups experience racism according to the tone of their skin.
The connection between modernity and body manipulation is distinct from the centuries-old trend of “decorating or ornamenting” the body, and is really about reshaping the body to present a new body as “natural.” In this way, the body is not adorned (through jewellery, painting, scarring or tattooing for example), but is “recreated” as if original.
“Light is bright”: The legacy of racist constructions of beauty
The quest for beauty is very important because white or light skin is a form of “racial capital” gaining its status from existing racial hierarchies. Racial capital is a resource drawn from the body that can be related to skin tone, facial features, body shape, etc.
It is now “normal” in many societies to view the body as a “work in progress”, not a given. A body is something that can be manipulated at every turn. Poked, prodded, buffed and remodelled. Racial capital only exists in a social context that views the body as a commodity.
It’s thus important to consider skin lightening from a gendered perspective, because the relations between skin colour, aesthetic and moral judgments affect women most acutely. Women, more than men, are judged heavily on the basis of appearance. Skin colour can be seen as a form of symbolic capital that affects one’s life opportunities. If women are held to higher beauty standards, then skin colour as determining life chances affects those most. Men are more likely to be considered valuable when they have wealth, an education and other forms of human capital, while women are considered valuable when they are physically attractive, even if they lack other capital.
As Cortese notes, women’s bodies have been dismembered and marketed in advertising for several decades now, but the merging of technologies of the body, the unrelenting multi-media cycle, the increased importance of beauty for women, and the explosion of pornography culture (where women’s bodies are routinely commodified and manipulated for a viewing audience), has created a perfect storm; resulting in an explosion of cosmetic procedures for women’s bodies.
Although publicly discussing one’s cosmetic procedures or regimen is uncommon in Zimbabwe, the modified body must still be presented as “natural” or “normal” in order to garner the status of an “ideal” female body or aesthetic. Similarly, criticisms of women who bleach are often based on the idea that bleaching women are trying to get something that is not naturally theirs. Before criticising skin bleaching, we must seek to understand it, especially why it happens.
In Part II, I deal specifically with the practice of skin bleaching in plain view.
Christine “Kiri” Rupiah