Black women skin bleaching appears to be a common practice in certain parts of the world.
I grew up in one of the parts of the world where black women skin bleaching has reportedly become a wide-spread practice. I don’t have stats to support the suggestion of a wide-spread practice, but I have been told that skin bleaching is now quite common there. It could be the case that some black women skin bleaching has given the impression that many are doing it, when in fact it’s really just a few and not enough to call the situation an epidemic.
When I was growing up in the Caribbean nation in question, skin bleaching was not something that took place. Or at least, if it did, there was no black women skin bleaching culture around it, so it wasn’t something I’d ever heard about. My first knowledge that there was such a thing as skin bleaching cream came about after I moved to the United States at the age of twelve. And even then, I was not aware that people actually used skin bleaching creams to change their entire body skin color from one thing to another.
The first time I knew someone could literally become an entirely different complexion by lightening their skin was when the late great Michael Jackson transformed himself from what he had been to what he became (as people have joked–a black man to a white man).
And even then, I was under the impression that changing from one complexion to another was something that a person could achieve only by means accessible and affordable to people of Michael Jackson’s stature. And I was also under the impression that only a small number of “lost souls” were so thoroughly programmed to believe that skin color mattered to some life-changing extent, and to believe so deeply and completely that light or white skin was required for having worth and value, that they would set out to try to get this worthy and right complexion.
But years ago I read an article suggesting there was an epidemic of black women skin bleaching in certain countries in Africa. I thought then that it was an unfortunate thing, but I didn’t really pay a great deal of attention to it. I admit that I didn’t think it was something that affected me because I was not living in Africa. But the world has changed. And the Internet culture, the culture of social media, brings the world together in a way that makes it a lot more difficult to separate yourself from social issues based on where you are located in the world. And now, apparently, women in the country where I was born have taken to bleaching their skin to change their complexion. So this brings the issue home (if you want to call it an issue). When all is said and done, there are more important things for us to be talking about right?
Even so, knowing it amounts to nothing when compared to real world issues that truly affect lives, I wanted to write an article about black women skin bleaching to explore the question of why….
Why do some black women, even in United States though not to the extent as in other countries, bleach their skin so they can transform themselves into light-skinned women?
There are already plenty of articles on the internet that cover this topic.
Here’s a list of articles from a few acclaimed publications…
- From marieclaire.com – Skin Bleaching – How and Why These Black Women Bleach Their Skin
- From NYTimes.com – Where Beauty Means Bleached Skin
- From BBC – Africa: Where black is not really beautiful
- From HuffingtonPost.com – Inside The Controversial Skin-Bleaching Phenomenon
While the articles are interesting, they don’t really do much to inspire the kind of conversation that could lead to a better understanding of the black women skin bleaching culture and how the beauty culture at large creates the environment that leads to women (not just black women) choosing to whiten their complexions in the pursuit of greater beauty.
Am I qualified to write an article that sheds enough light to allow the reader to walk away with a better understanding of the black women skin bleaching culture? I will be the first to say that I am not. I don’t have any insight into the skin bleaching culture that comes from a place of qualified knowledge or from a place of experience. I have never at any point in my life engaged in an ongoing daily ritual of applying creams to my skin with the goal of transforming myself from a brown skin to a light skin girl. But I believe that many black women can relate to this issue whether they have ever bleached their skin hoping to become light-skin or not. Many of us have stories about how this light-skin/dark-skin obsession in black culture around the world has impacted directly or indirectly on our lives.
Why is there a difference between black women skin bleaching and women of other ethnic backgrounds skin bleaching?
There is a misconception that skin bleaching is something that is strictly the domain of black women but in fact, skin bleaching is not something that only black women do. In this quote from the Huffington Post article referenced above, Japan, India, Latin America, the Philippines are among the regions of the world, other than Africa and the Caribbean, where there is known to exist a culture of skin bleaching.
From the Huffingtonpost.com – Dr. Margaret Hunter, head of the Sociology Department at Mills College, has seen the popularity of bleaching creams surge in recent years. “Skin bleaching is a growing phenomenon around the world and it’s becoming a bigger business,” she says. “Now it’s a multi-billion dollar business and all the biggest cosmetic companies sell products that are supposed to lighten your skin.”
While you won’t find many products in the U.S. that blatantly promise to bleach or whiten skin, Dr. Hunter says they are commonplace in other parts of the world. “They’re popular throughout many African countries, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, India, Philippines, Japan — broadly,” she says.
And skin bleaching takes many shapes and forms. If you’ve used creams to fades spots, you’ve bleached your skin. All creams designed for evening skin tone, removing/fading dark spots are to some extent bleaching creams. Anyone who isn’t so fortunate to have blemish-free skin who has used a cream to try to remove spots and acquire clear (as in blemish free) skin, has bleached their skin. Because you have to ‘bleach’ your spots to get your skin tone to become even after you have acquired a blemish. Of course, there’s a difference in using a cream to clear dark spots and even skin tone, and using a cream to turn yourself a different skin color from head to toe.
Regardless from which ethnic background you enter the white-washing world, you are doing it because white skin is glorified and celebrated all over the world throughout modern and ancient history.
I do not support skin bleaching. It would break my heart if I had a daughter and she chose to bleach her skin. I would have failed her as a mother in that case, which is not to blame mothers of black daughters who bleach their skin hoping to turn themselves into light-skinned girls. There are some social issues that, no matter what we do as parents to try to protect our children from becoming affected by, the influence of the outside world proves stronger than our own. There are going be to girls who will not have the necessary strength of character to simply laugh at the world for harboring such ridiculous and embarrassing views. They won’t have the ability to stand strong against beliefs that belittle their worth. They won’t have the ability to remain unaffected by seeing how much attention is paid to light-skinned girls while they are ignored. The many doors to opportunity closed to them but opened to light-skinned girls will naturally make them resentful. Sure, it’s fair to argue that they should be secure enough in their sense of self to never feel that they are less because they don’t measure up to the established standards of beauty. But when they are being told and shown that they are less, what are they to do? And when in struggling to get ahead doors are being closed in their faces entirely because their look does not illicit any response of warmth, curiosity or interest, they will naturally feel diminished. It can be painful to be a woman when you have to be on the outside looking in, watching other women being glorified and celebrated for their looks. And all the world over, even in the United States, glorified and celebrated black women are typically the ones with a light skin color.
From marieclaire.com (article focusing on skin bleaching in Jamaica) – Jamaican novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn, whose book Here Comes the Sun features a teenage character who bleaches her skin, wrote an essay on how the fair complexions of most of the winners of the Miss Jamaica pageant influenced her ideas of beauty as a child in Kingston. Photos of these Miss Jamaicas were everywhere, from the supermarket to liquor stores. “Though they were strangers, our community seemed to love them more than they loved us,” Dennis-Benn writes. Meanwhile, darker-skinned Jamaican women like Grace Jones—though famous internationally—were relative unknowns at home.
Also from the same marieclaire.com article– Many of the women interviewed for this story said they got compliments, were told they looked “cute,” or were given more attention after they bleached their skin. A number of women said lighter skin looks better in photographs, and that those images get more views when posted on social media. The payoff is significant enough that even those who don’t have a lot of disposable income will spend significant amounts on their bleaching habit…
Every woman who has been conditioned to believe that her looks determine her worth, is conscious of the fact that there are particular physical traits that are considered ideal traits for a woman to possess in order to attract not just male notice, but opportunities for achieving high levels of success in life. She knows that the absence of these traits means that in the eyes of those who judge her beauty, she is not worthy of anyone’s time and attention. She is not worthy to appear in anyone’s music video or on the cover of anyone’s magazine. She does not deserve to ride in limos and live in New York City penthouses and take trips to the French Riviera and such luxurious locales. Yes, occasionally a dark-skinned girl breaks through that steel wall. And when she does, the world falls into line, everyone saying and doing all the right things to prove diversity and inclusivity. But her presence in the spotlight does not change the dominant narrative. Her presence does not result in a shift in attitudes to where, suddenly, dark skin becomes desirable. Things still remain as they are, and she is considered to be an exception–to have something so special about her that her dark complexion becomes irrelevant to any point. Maybe a few girls will see her and feel good about themselves, and believe that there is nothing wrong with their skin color. But most conflicted girls will continue to see the disparity in the number of light skinned girls being represented in the beauty industry versus the number of dark-skinned girls. And they will continue to believe that light skin is better.
So let’s not pretend that just because we are not among the group of black women skin bleaching, that many of us are not still plagued and affected by the same conflicts that lead these women down this path of what some say is self effacement.
I have never bleached myself trying to become light-skinned. But when I was about 15, a pretty long time ago, I went through a brief period of wishing that I could have a lighter complexion. And I would try to argue that my real complexion was not the dominant color that one first sees, but the lighter color on particular areas of my body. I would point out the various places where my skin was more yellow than brown, and I would say that the brown was the result of my skin being darkened over time by the sun. I don’t think that every black girl goes through this skin color identity crisis. People like to say that every black girl does go through this, but it isn’t true. There are many black girls who are well put together in terms of their sense of self. They know who they are and what they are worth. They do not define themselves by their external appearance, and they do not give access to their psyche to people who want to come around and try to get them to believe that other people being lighter in complexion than they are, deserve more in life than they do.
I grew up in a household with some of these women. But, I also grew up with women who weren’t quite as secure in themselves and who had a heightened admiration for other women that was based on how these other women looked–based on the range of non-black colors of these other women’s skin, the color/length/texture of their hair, the color of their eyes etc. They elevated these women and made them the measure of all things worthy and beautiful. Unfortunately, it is the second group of women who usually have the stronger influence in a girl’s life, because they are so much more preoccupied with the culture of beauty. And because they are so thoroughly programmed to believe that the ideas they have been sold are fact, they impress these ideas on girls by the way they live, the language they speak. They cause girls to believe that their value lies in their physical appearance, and that there’s a beauty scale against which they must measure themselves to know how much or how little they are worth. And on that scale, white women with blonde hair and blue eyes represent the highest point and black women with no discernible European trait in skin complexion or facial features, represent the lowest. These women with their self-effacing beliefs help to support and strengthen the views that allow for the existence of such practices as black women skin bleaching.
When you live in a world that is like our world where, to many, a woman has no value outside of her looks, and you’re a woman who longs to be valued, you can become hung up on issues like skin color because…
Our global cultures of beauty make a big deal about skin. Regardless where you come from, from which ethnic background you hail, there are ideas and beliefs about skin that will shape how you view yourself. Non-black women are obsessed about their complexion too. They also do things to try to achieve a certain look of perfection based on what defines perfection in their culture. The skin care industry is heavily invested in ensuring the maintenance of the obsession women have with their skin. So they are constantly reminding us of the need to have perfect skin. Which brings to the fore the question of what exactly constitutes perfect skin? And most of the time, products that are designed to help women reach their “perfect skin” goals, use light-skinned, white or other non-black women with a skin shade that is on the ivory, beige, pink yellow, white spectrum to represent perfect skin. In some way the message comes across to the consumer that this is the skin they must have in order to be beautiful. If they buy in and purchase a cream that says it can give them that skin, are they self-hating, or are they making a cosmetic choice that they think will enhance their beauty?
Is skin bleaching the same as tanning in concept?
I think it’s a stretch to suggest, as some have done, that skin bleaching is the same as tanning in concept
There’s a history that makes the matter of black women skin bleaching a lot more complex than the practice of tanning. And it is because of this history that the argument for black women skin bleaching being a mere cosmetic choice like tanning, becomes impossible to accept.
You don’t have to bleach your skin to be part of the black women skin bleaching culture…
When I am taking pictures for example, my complexion is brightened by the lights that I have to use. Brightened basically means that I am lit up, and under the lights, I appear brighter and lighter in complexion. And when the photographs are taken, I am sometimes captured with a skin tone that is lighter than my real skin tone. By contrast, when there is inadequate lighting, I am sometimes captured with a skin tone that is darker than my real skin tone. Unless my skin tone in the lightened photo is so extreme that I think people will accuse me of trying to be white, I will use the picture where my complexion is lighter without trying to retouch the skin to make it closer to my real complexion. However, I almost always edit the pictures where my color is darker than my norm, to try to “fix” my complexion. How is this not the same mentality as that which forms the basis of the black women skin bleaching culture? To believe that you look better in your photographs when your skin is illuminated by light, is to believe that you look better when your skin appears less dark and more light is it not?
So I think that just because you don’t bleach your skin doesn’t mean you are guiltless of harboring thoughts and performing actions rooted in the same belief that light skin is more ideal than dark.
The root of the black women skin bleaching practice…
Some call the culture of black women skin bleaching an epidemic–a problem. I don’t have stats so I don’t know how big a problem it is in reality. How many women are really doing this? But I do know that it is done. Even here in the United States, although it is less blatant because you get called out more quickly in this country for doing anything that remotely suggests you have a problem with who you are as a black woman or man. But if it is indeed an epidemic, I don’t know that it’s useful or correct to suggest that the root of the black women skin bleaching practice is self hate, and just leave it at that.
Depending on who has the greater influence in our lives, we’re either going to know our worth and take great pride in ourselves, and never feel that there are things about us that we need to change in order to have worth and value, or we’re going to subscribe to ideas that suggest that a person’s worth and value is greater if certain physical criteria are met. In which case, if we don’t meet the criteria, we will feel that we are less worthy and less valuable. And we will treat ourselves and our life according to this idea that we have in our head that we don’t measure up. We are not the ones who make the rules about what’s beautiful and what is not. And say what you will, in our communities, in our households, we uphold these arbitrary standards. We praise the little light-skinned girls. We celebrate them. We treat them like they are more special because they have light skin, they have so-called ‘good hair‘. And boy, if they have a light eye-color–boy do we put them on a level where we never ever place little black girls who are ‘ordinary’ as in, they are not light-skinned, they don’t naturally have “good hair” that just grows ‘good’ without having to be subjected to major hair care procedures to be made to look like “good hair”. And they don’t have light eyes (this includes light brown). The women bleaching their skin were girls once. They heard all the praise being heaped on the light-skinned girls. They saw the blatant difference in the way life treats a light-skinned girl vs the way life treats girls with brown and darker complexions. They know, and we know, that light skin is an asset when you are a black woman, anywhere in the world.
Who would be happy to be at a disadvantage?
Those of us who don’t bleach our skin out of defiance and determination to maintain our ethnic pride, we would not trade light skin for dark if we were born with light skin. We would not trade our advantages for disadvantages. Because we all want to get ahead in life. We all want to have the best in life. So if we had an asset that gave us an advantage in the game, we would hold on to it. And if the world did not condemn skin bleaching as a deplorable act of self effacement and self hate, more black women would probably choose to do it; because the alternative is to go along with the way things work, and take what you can get out of life, knowing that you are getting less because the color of your skin puts you at a disadvantage in the competition for the prize you’re trying to win.
Is this an excuse to bleach your skin? No, it is not. After all, we know that winning the prize is possible no matter the color of your skin. We have examples to prove that having light skin is no guarantee you will win, and having dark skin is no guarantee you will lose.
We do have some control over how we play the hand we’re dealt. At the end of the day, it will be difficult to make an argument that the reason an individual did not achieve a certain amount of success in life is entirely because of the color of their skin. So a disadvantage (perceived or real) only makes the process more difficult. It doesn’t make things impossible. Which is to say, just because there’s reason to believe a light complexion might help you get where you want to go without having to face a million extra obstacles, doesn’t mean that you can’t still get where you’re trying to go if you don’t have this physical feature. There are plenty of intrinsic characteristics and traits that help to people to the top of the mountains they climb, regardless how they look on the outside.
But if you’re a black woman whose ambitions are to become a model, actress, singer or some other profession where your external appearance matters to the extent that if you don’t look a certain way, you’re not very likely to have success in this field, it can be tempting to want to change your physical appearance to give yourself a better chance at being able to achieve success.
For some women who don’t measure up to the accepted standards, who don’t have a special talent or a big brain on which to fall back, the idea of not having a chance at the same life prizes as the women who do measure up, or the women who can use a talent or their brain to overcome the absence of the right skin, the right hair, the right eye color, is not an idea that they can accept. But what can they do other than accept it or play by the old adage if you can’t beat them join them? They can’t take the prizes from the light-skinned black girls or the non-black girls with the desirable complexion. To get the prize, they have to be one of those girls. And creams exist to help them achieve this. So they use these creams. Because they want to be special too. And they look at life and they see what is going on. They accept that what is going on reflects the truth about the world and all the people in it. And the truth they see, is that with light skin, they will be treated better and valued more highly than with dark skin.
I am not a sociologist or a psychologist so I am not qualified to speak about the sociological and psychological aspects of this black women skin bleaching culture. But I would suggest that it is more important to explore and talk about these angles than to interview black women who have bleached their skin and ask them why they have done this.
I know that for many black women skin bleaching, the argument is, I love myself and it’s my skin and I like how light skin looks and I have the right to bleach my skin if I want to. They will say that their choice to lighten their skin has nothing to do with any psychological issue, or any of the things I’m saying above. It’s not an act of self hate, or self-preservation or trying to improve their odds of winning the game. And many of them can point to the fact that they are living successful, happy lives to show that they are not self-loathing women. In fact they love themselves very much, and the evidence is in the pictures they post to their social media pages. They are happy and thriving, so where is the evidence of self hate? Self hate destroys. Self hate does not create the kind of life that they are living– a life that their darker skinned self would likely not be enjoying because she would not have been allowed on the stage to compete for the prize to begin with. To get ahead with dark skin there has to be something about your physical self that is so outstanding that the rules are bent to permit your admittance into the world of prized women. They knew this and so, because they loved themselves, they chose not to be dark skinned. Because, thanks to skin lightening creams, you can make a choice. Some of these women argue that it is the same as a brunette Caucasian woman with brown eyes deciding to become a blue-eyed blonde by dying her hair and wearing contact lenses. They say it is purely cosmetic.
But is the issue of black women skin bleaching a simple case of women exercising their right and freedom to choose how they want to look?
Are those of us who see the skin bleaching issue in a racial light making too much of things? Are we the ones creating the problems in the world by suggesting that if someone changes their complexion it means they hate themselves? Why should we care what creams people choose to use on their skin? Why does it bother us so much?
If someone who bleaches her skin asked me this question here’s how I might answer it:
I get it. You have a right to do with your body whatever you choose. It’s your body. And you have a right to subscribe to whatever beliefs you choose. It’s your mind. If you decide you want to have a light complexion, and there are products available to help you achieve this, and you decide to use these products, it’s no more anyone’s business, that it’s anyone’s business if someone decides they want to be blonde and so they use the products that are available to achieve this result. I respect your right to believe what you choose to believe and to do whatever you choose to do with your own body. But I would ask you why? Why did you believe that the skin color you had before you bleached your skin, wasn’t as good as the skin color you have now? If there is no psychological issue behind it, how did you come to conclude that you would look better and your life would be better if your skin was light? Why did you look at women with light skin in a more favorable light? Why did you want to live among them as one of them to the extent that you chose to change yourself?
I do think that black women skin bleaching is emblematic of deeper issues that go back possibly further than slavery. But I don’t have the intellectual capacity or the educational background to attempt to get into that discussion.
I will say this. While I have never tried to bleach my brown skin to try to become a light-skinned girl, I have been aware since girlhood that black girls with light skin are prized over black girls with dark skin. There are of course exceptions. But these exceptions don’t change the attitudes that we have in society towards black women and skin color. Unless a black woman is light-skinned or there is something about her that ‘stuns’–maybe she has dark skin but light colored eyes, or she has dark skin but her features stand out in a way that leaves one gaping in awe over her perceived beauty–no one is going to laud her and acclaim her and prize her over a light-skinned girl.
On the other hand, a black girl with light skin only needs her light skin to secure advantages.
A black girl with a light skin color doesn’t have to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived to stand out and attract interest in the black communities. If she’s in a contest and the other contestants are black women with brown and dark complexions, just by virtue of having light skin she’s winning most of the time. Sometimes there will be a dark-skinned woman with a personality so winning and a face so breathtakingly beautiful, that it would be too obvious a cheat for her not to win. But in the absence of this exception, if the other women in the contest are darker and not so much more talented or more interesting, one of them would win only because of concerns over accusations that preference had been given to the light-skinned girl on account of her complexion.
I know that this is an opinion that is easy to challenge. I am not light-skinned so how can I speak about advantages that light-skinned girls have over dark-skinned girls just because of their complexion? I’m sure there are exceptions where there are light-skinned girls who don’t experience any advantages that they can see. But, exceptions aside, generally it is easier to for a black woman to get access to certain opportunities in life when she has a lighter complexion.
These are things that we don’t really talk about socially because no one is willing to have certain conversations any more. It’s easier to just take a side and start throwing stones across the dividing line. But personally, I have been impacted by this skin color complex that we all have in some way shape or form in many ways in my life. Whether it was by being rejected by someone I liked in favor or a light-skinned girl, or being made to question my own worth and beauty because of hearing the adults around me constantly praising white features, when you’re a young girl growing up and you have a heightened consciousness of your appearance and you look in a mirror and you can’t find a single thing on your face that you can check off to say, at least I have that, it can create an image complex. Beyond that, it can affect your view of yourself and your view of your worth in a way that sets you on a life course that is destructive.
So, I won’t pretend that I do not understand why some women, knowing what is thought and said about black women skin bleaching, would still resort to bleaching their skin.
Our cultures prize women for their beauty. And there are standards that shape what we think and what we see as far as the subject of beauty is concerned. And one way or another girls are affected by feeling like they do not measure up to the standards. Yes, there are girls who are bigger than these silly concerns about beauty. And more power to these girls. They have my respect and admiration. But we do not all have the strength of character to stand apart from the crowd and be who we are and do our own thing and live on a higher plain for a higher purpose. Many of us just want to be loved. We want to be liked. We want to be admired. We want to be beautiful. Even while we are aware that the standards are twisted and sick and wrong, we know we cannot change them, and so we turn our efforts instead on doing anything and everything we can to try to measure up. The black women skin bleaching culture is an offshoot of the bigger culture of beauty. But no one is interested in getting to the real root of the problem, because if we eradicate people’s hangups about image, there is no market for all the products that exist to help us fix ourselves.
In the end though, it is still on each individual to choose to subscribe or not to subscribe to a viewpoint that leaves her/him with the conclusion that she/he is worthless because of her/his external appearance. After all, if you have eyes, then you can see for yourself that skin color has nothing to do with anything. If you have a mind that is open and free and clear of the programmed thoughts, you know that skin color should never be an asset or a liability. Furthermore, if you have a mind that is open and free and clear of the programmed thoughts, then you can see beyond the strict set of physical traits that have been accepted as the standard markers of so-called beauty. So if you are conflicted and feel that you must have light skin in order to be worthy of a laudable position in society, while you cannot be faulted for creating the ideas that put these thoughts into your head, you do have to be given the blame for your choice to agree with the ideas to the extent that you choose to bleach your skin.
Wrapping up my discussion on the black women skin bleaching culture…
At the end of the day, those black women skin bleaching are just doing what women do when they think some physical change is going to enhance their lives, increase their worth and value, and make them feel better about themselves. It is interesting to note that some of the African women on social media known for having bleached their skin are enjoying significant success with large followings that they are turning into dollars that afford them to live their lives in the lap of luxury. The skin bleaching is paying off for them. Yes, there are stories about black women skin bleaching disasters. It doesn’t pay off for everybody. But it pays off so gloriously for some that the more impressionable girls looking on are going to think it’s worth doing. They see the proof that for some black women skin bleaching opened doors to opportunities that were not available to these same women before they bleached their skin. And the pictures of the black women skin bleaching success stroies living it up on yachts, traveling the globe on private jets, partying, strutting around in designer heels carrying designer bags, wearing designer clothes–these pictures are far more powerful than incomprehensible words written in a nearly 6500 word article on the subject.
Bleaching my skin to achieve a light-skinned girl’s complexion is something that I will never do. However, I understand why someone would do it, and I will not dare to condemn a woman for doing what she decides is necessary for her to do in order to enhance her chances at being able to live the life she wants to live. I know too well what it means when you don’t have certain advantages and cannot get a break to get ahead.
Peace to all of you.