17 February, 2016

Breaking down Black Culture: ‘Skin lightening’

"This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable"

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Less than R50 is all you need to turn the ‘darker’ you into a ‘yellow bone’. You’re also guaranteed it will take about two weeks to start seeing results.

People have been bleaching their skin for some time now and many say it is because they do not look beautiful with their dark skin, so a lighter skin will achieve that.

Lighter skin phenomenon

Skin lightening has become a trend. From ordinary people to celebrities. The lighter, the better.

It’s become clear that black is not necessarily beautiful.

In townships and CBD’s,  most street vendors sell skin lightening products and no prescription is required when buying them. Caro Light is one of the more popular products in townships. It transforms people in just two weeks and most users rely on it for better results.

One woman (wished to not be named) who sells bleaching products indicated that she made a lot of money with the inferiority complex of women who hate being dark.

“Children as young as 16 are bleaching and so are their parents. This means more money is coming in,” she said.

She added that some of her customers were shy to buy in public and often asked her to wrap the products with a newspaper to hide them. Extra Clear Cream, Bio Claire Cream, G&G, Rico Complexion Cream and Clairmen are some of the skin lightening products can be bought from her. This indicates the range of skin lightening products available for darker skinned people to look lighter.

Caro Light is one of the products used to bleach skin.
Caro Light is one of the products used to bleach skin.

Even though these products come with serious side effects, the women who use these products continue to use them, hoping that becoming lighter would outweigh the negativities.

Popular TV personality and actress Khanyi Mbau is a well known local celebrity who had her skin bleached. Mbau does not use creams but rather active ingredients injected into her bloodstream through an IV drip.

“After the first three infusions, I could already see a difference, and now I am two tones lighter. It’s awesome,” she said in an interview.


Khanyi Mbau
Khanyi Mbau. Picture credit: destinyconnect

On the other hand, former Kwaito star, Mshoza, once claimed that the reason she was bleaching her skin was because she had a rare skin condition and to minimise it she needed to get bleaching injections. (However, in 2012 Drum Magazine published an article where she stated that she was ‘tired of being ugly’ and wanted to be ‘Christina Aguilera white).

“It is just something that I wanted to do,” said the singer. “It has nothing to do with my esteem and issues with being black. It’s just sad that people with weaves and all other cosmetic enhancements to make themselves look western are on high horses judging me. I just wanted a lighter skin. Our parents have been burning themselves with skin lightening creams for decades. It was never an issue about self-esteem and race. People must calm down”.

Mshoza. Credit: SundayWorld

Skin lightening treatments are popular for darker skinned people to look ‘whiter’ – a privilege it seems that would earn them better recognition from communities, better job prospects, more respect and higher self-esteem.

“I remember a time when I too felt un-beautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God…But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened”, Lupita Nyong’o said in an interview.

“European standards of beauty are something that plague the entire world—the idea that darker skin is not beautiful, that light skin is the key to success and love. Africa is no exception. When I was in the second grade, one of my teachers said, “Where are you going to find a husband? How are you going to find someone darker than you?” I was mortified. I remember seeing a commercial where a woman goes for an interview and doesn’t get the job. Then she puts a cream on her face to lighten her skin, and she gets the job! This is the message: that dark skin is unacceptable. I definitely wasn’t hearing this from my immediate family—my mother never said anything to that effect—but the voices from the television are usually much louder than the voices of your parents”, she told Glamour

It is important to note how actress Lupita Nyong’o had learned over time to accept and love her dark skin.

Lupita Ngony'o
Lupita Ngony’o

“I come from a loving, supportive family, and my mother taught me that there are more valuable ways to achieve beauty than just through your external features. She was focused on compassion and respect, and those are the things that ended up translating to me as beauty. Beautiful people have many advantages, but so do friendly people…. I think beauty is an expression of love”, Lupita added.

The History behind skin colour:

The preferred skin tone varies by culture and has varied over time. A number of indigenous African groups, such as the Maasai, associated pale skin with being cursed or caused by evil spirits associated with witchcraft. They would abandon their children born with conditions such as albinism and showed a sexual preference for darker skin.

Many cultures have historically favored lighter skin for women. In Europe, before the Industrial Revolution, pale skin was preferred and was a sign of high social status. The poorer classes worked outdoors and got darker skin from exposure to the sun, while the upper class stayed indoors and had light skin. Hence, light skin became associated with wealth and high position. Women would put lead-based cosmetics on their skin to whiten their skin tone artificially. Achieving a light-skinned appearance was additionally brought about in various other ways, including the use of arsenic to whiten skin, and powders. 

Colonization and slavery by European countries inspired colorism and racism, led by the belief that people with dark skin were uncivilized, inferior, and should be subordinate to the lighter-skinned invaders. This has been perpetuated in modern times. During slavery, lighter-skinned African-Americans were perceived as more intelligent, cooperative, and beautiful. They were more likely to work as house slaves and were also given preferential treatment by plantation owners and the overseers. For example, they had a chance to get an education while darker African-Americans worked in the fields and did not get an education. The preference for fair skin remained prominent until the end of the Victorian era. – Wikipedia

Racial stereotypes about worth and beauty were still persistent in the last half of the 20th century and continue in the present day.

We interviewed a woman who sells skin lightening cream. Watch the video below:

Written by Rudzani Matshili (MOJO) for #RacismStopsWithMe campaign. An initiative by Independent Media and Sactwu.

How do you feel about skin colour?