The marriage of new technologies to old colonial ideologies has created a context where consumers can purchase “racial capital” through skin bleaching creams or cosmetic surgeries. The use of skin bleaching creams is on the rise in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa. Similarly, cosmetic surgery is on the increase among black communities across the world.
The sale of skin lightening products is becoming more visible and accessible. In 2006, Perry noted that their global demand had never been higher. Fast forward to 2015 and bleaching remains popular. Today, in Zimbabwe, how can we make sense of this surge in the demand for skin whitening products?
The global beauty industry has reinvented and repackaged itself in recent years in the image of multiculturalism. Many cosmetics companies that once exclusively featured or sold only to white women have added light-skinned women of colour to their advertisements and as spokespersons for their products.
This “illusion of inclusion” is a tempting marketing strategy to draw in women (usually black) who might otherwise feel alienated from products marketed exclusively with images of white beauty. By including a few light-skinned women of colour who almost always have western European features, cosmetics companies give off a semblance of inclusivity, without removing their message that white bodies are beautiful.
The inclusion of women of colour like Halle Berry of the US (Revlon), Aishwarya Rai of India (L’Oreal), Genevieve Nnaji of Nigeria (Lux), or Terry Pheto of South Africa (L’Oreal) and more recently media darling Lupita Nyong’o of Kenya (Lancome) is designed to black female consumers into buying these products and believing that their bodies and beauty are being valued.
Marketing whiteness as beauty in Zimbabwe
Skin bleaching products are marketed in a number of ways and with a variety of different product names. In Zimbabwe, “bleaching” carries a negative stigma so products are marketed instead as skin “evening” creams, hyperpigmentation-removing, skin-brighteners, skin-toners, fading creams, fairness creams, or depigmenting creams. For some Zimbabwean women the preferred code is “Kuzora” or “Arikuzora” – He/she is “applying/lotioning” without specifically saying what exactly she is applying to her skin which can be innocently explained away without alerting judgemental people of their use of skin bleachers.
Despite these euphemisms, the names of the products themselves are often overt and clear about the intended outcomes. Porcelana’s Skin-Lightening Cream, Cosmetic Surgeon in a Jar’s Illuminator Brightening Complexion, Darphin’s Clear White Brightening and Soothing Serum, Sekkisei’s White Powder Wash, Fair and White’s So White! Skin Perfector Brightening Cream, Clinique’s DermaWhite, Shisheido’s White Lucent, L’Oreal’s White Perfect, Ambi Fade Cream, and India’s best-selling Fair & Lovely are all readily and easily available around the world both online and in beauty supply stores.
Sadly many women are unaware of how ubiquitous skin lightening agents are. The clever use of euphemisms has allowed “soft” skin bleaching to become a part of many a skin regimen without causing alarm or alerting users of their actual effects.
In order to appeal to the powerful discourse of “natural beauty” in many societies, most products claim to restore the natural beauty of skin (if it is lost), reveal the natural beauty of skin (if it is hidden), or create a natural beauty (if the consumer never had it to begin with). All of these claims are supported with compelling before and after photos and promises backed with the discourse of science in phrases like, “clinically tested” or “scientifically developed”. Ads use copy such as, “reveal your natural beauty” to appeal to consumers’ need to feel like their achieved light skin is theirs by birthright or the “infallibility” of science.
Discourses on skin bleaching: different sides of the same coin
The competing discourses around skin bleaching and cosmetic surgery provide an opportunity to examine how the voices for and against bleaching have more in common than one might think.
The beauty discourse suggests that self-improvement through skin lightening is a pathway to a happier personal and professional life. On the other hand, the public health discourse suggests that self-improvement through one’s attitude is all that is necessary to realise that dark skin is beautiful, too. Both the beauty discourse and the public health discourse evade the realities of skin colour hierarchies and instead focus on self-improvement themes. Specifically, they both miss the systematic and institutional aspect of skin colour hierarchies that are manifest in Zimbabwe and globally. By focusing on individuals and attitudes, voices from both sides of the debate have ignored the larger social context in which bleaching occurs.
The pursuit of racial capital is enabled by the social context of global media, technologies of the body, global economies and job markets, and persistent racism and sexism. Multinational cosmetics companies market skin-whitening products around the world, and especially to women (and men) of the Global South. Urban, educated women in Africa are especially poised to increase their market share of expensive skin-lightening products as they anticipate competing in a global job market often dominated by the West.
Perhaps public health campaigns avoid talking about the larger social context of colourism because it seems like an intractable problem, hard to fix through public policy. Or, government health officials may not want to publicly admit that cultural aesthetics of the body still mimic European or white norms, years after the colonial experience. The public health discourse then, has the effect of maintaining silence around the structural benefits of light skin, and pathologizing women for taking “unnecessary risks” with their health, and sometimes, the health of their children.
Women bear the brunt of the health costs associated with bleaching (although men bleach, too), while at the same time they are constructed as villains in this national discourse, at fault for succumbing to vain beliefs about beauty and risking their health to attain these standards.
Christine “Kiri” Rupiah