A cursory search on any Internet search engine reveals hundreds of skin-lightening (1) websites that provide information for would-be consumers about the "best" skin-lightening products and strategies. Lighterskin.org, whiterskin.com, skinwhitening.org, skin-whitening-product.com, and skinwhiteningexperts.com all purport to share with readers the newest information on, and reviews of, skin-lightening products. How is information about skin-lightening conveyed today and how do competing discourses frame the nature of skin-lightening differently? This paper investigates three discursive frameworks on skin-lightening around the globe: the beauty discourse, the public health discourse, and the new cosmetic surgery discourse. Each discourse frames skin-lightening, body manipulation, and social actors in different and important ways, revealing much about the global beauty industry, neo-colonial and post-colonial racial ideologies, and the ongoing role of women of color's bodies as the battleground for these conflicts.
Skin-lightening, or bleaching, has reached epidemic levels in scores of nations around the globe, and especially in many African nations including Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa, and Nigeria (Adebajo, 2002; Blay, 2009; Harada et al, 2001; Lewis et al, 2009; Mahe et al, 1993; Mahe, Ly & Gounongbe, 2004; Olumide et al, 2008). Although both men and women engage in skin-whitening practices of various sorts, women generally have higher rates of skin-whitening than men, and women also sometimes apply skin-whitening products to their children (Counter & Buchanan, 2004; Fokuo, 2009). This paper will investigate why women bleach, and why men and women in Africa and the African Diaspora encourage women to bleach their skin.
The benefits of light skin, although not universal, are widespread around the globe, particularly in countries formerly colonized by Europe or with a significant U.S. presence (Glenn, 2008; Hunter, 2005; Mire, 2001; Rondilla & Spickard, 2007; Telles, 2006). Throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, skin-bleaching is a common practice as people try to acquire lighter skin and the social and economic status that goes with it (Perry, 2006). Although people in some cultures have tried to lighten their skin for centuries, recent data suggests that skin-bleaching is on the rise, particularly among educated, urban women in the Global South (2) (Del Giudice & Yves, 2002; Ntshingla, 2005). What accounts for this recent shift? Glenn (2008) suggests that while historic, European colonial ideologies still have an effect on people, the rise of skin-bleaching around the globe can also be attributed to the constant, current mass-marketing of contemporary images of white beauty. Charles (2009a) suggests that hegemonic representations of white skin are thoroughly rooted in multiple social institutions including education, religion, mass media, and popular culture. Wealthy nations like the United States, Japan, and many European nations create many of the global images of white (or light) beauty (Burke, 1996). In turn, these same nations are also home to the cosmetics companies that produce some of the top-selling skin-bleaching creams, including L'Oreal, Unilever, Shiseido, and others.
Images of white beauty do not simply rely on white women with blonde hair and light eyes to sell products. Images of white beauty sell much more than beauty ideals or fashions for women around the globe. Taken as a whole, images of white beauty sell an entire lifestyle imbued with racial meaning (Burke, 1996; Saraswati, 2010). The lifestyle that is communicated through these ads sells whiteness, modernity, sophistication, beauty, power, and wealth (Leong, 2006; Mahe, Ly & Gounongbe, 2004). The mass-marketing of these images of white beauty and a "white lifestyle" build on the long standing European colonial ideologies that valorize white beauty, European culture, and white aesthetics (Mire, 2001).
"Yearning for whiteness," (Glenn, 2008) has long been present in nations formerly colonized by Europe, but today, those old ideologies combine with new mass media and communication technologies to compound the message that "white is right" (Thomas, 2009). For example, the largest social networking application, Facebook, launched a new "app," sponsored by cosmetics giant, Vaseline, that allows users to lighten their skin tone in their profile pictures. By dragging a vertical bar across their pictures they can create instant before-and-after images devised to sell more of Vaseline's best-selling product, "Healthy White: Skin Lightening Lotion." This paper will investigate how the age-old cultural practice of skin-bleaching has evolved as competing discourses from the beauty industry, public health officials, and the cosmetic surgery industry, vie to control the way we think about race, the body, colonialism, and power.
The increase in skin-bleaching around the globe is a result of the merger between old ideologies of colonialism and race, and new technologies of the body (Hunter, 2005). The racist ideologies of race and color were an integral part of the European colonial experience (Charles, 2003). However, new transnational neocolonial ideologies now continue and elaborate these old belief systems (Leonardo, 2002). Images from the U.S. and Europe lead the way in valorizing white/light beauty around the world. Japan's influence is particularly strong throughout Asia and is evidenced in their best-selling beauty products marketed as, "specially designed for Asian skin" (Ashikari, 2005). White/light beauty is communicated through mass advertising, television shows, film, Internet images, billboards, and celebrity culture (Baumann, 2008; Saraswati, 2010; Winders, Jones, & Higgins, 2005).
The quest for white 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. I use the term "racial capital" to describe the role that white/Anglo bodies play in the status hierarchy. Both Anglo bodies and light or white skin confer status on people of color in an individualistic way. Light skin tone can be transformed into social capital (social networks), symbolic capital (esteem or status), or even economic capital (high-paying job or promotion) (Bourdieu, 1984; Hunter, 2005). Blay (2009) found that women in Ghana who used bleaching products were trying to attain beauty vis a vis light skin. She argues that light skin and beauty were the vehicles through which women attempted to gain social capital (Blay, 2009). The concept of "racial capital" is distinct from racial identity. Racial capital is more closely related to phenotype and how others perceive an individual, rather than how that individual defines him or herself.
Racial capital only makes sense in a racist society where light skin and Anglo bodies are valued over dark skin and African or Indian/Indigenous bodies. The concept of racial capital is connected to the larger systems of racism and colorism. Racism operates at the level of racial category where people in a given category experience institutional discrimination regardless of phenotype, and colorism operates within the system of racism and differentiates how subordinate groups experience racism according to the tone of their skin (Hunter, 2002). Colorism is broadly evidenced in many societies today and helps explain why lighter-skinned and darker-skinned people of the same race have different experiences with regard to discrimination (Glenn, 2009).
Racial capital only exists in a social context that views the body as a commodity. Women's bodies have been dismembered and marketed in advertising for several decades now (Cortese, 1999), but the merging of technologies of the body, the 24 hour 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.
It is now normative in many societies to view the body as a "work in progress" (Davis, 1995). People no longer view the human body as "given," but increasingly seen it as changeable (Davis, 1995). For example, in a recent interview with a major U.S. news corporation, a Senegalese woman said, "Women bleach their skin to come across as modern women who can modify their skin tone as they wish" (Barnier, 2009). The interviewee describes the connection between "modernity" and the use of cosmetics to alter the body. Her statement also reflects the notion that women make individual choices to suit their own aesthetic preferences. Sophisticated women can modify their skin tones "as they wish" (Barnier, 2009). The connection between modernity and body manipulation is distinctive 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 jewelry, painting, or scarring, for example), but is "recreated" as if original. Although publicly discussing one's cosmetic surgeries is more common in some places than others, the modified body must still be presented as "natural" or "normal" in order to garner the status of an "ideal female body" (Blum, 2005). 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.
The Beauty Discourse: The Power of Marketing and Celebrity
Sales of skin-lightening products are on the rise and their global demand has never been higher (Perry, 2006). In a post-colonial world, and some suggest a post-racial era, how can we make sense of this surge in the demand for skin-whitening? The global beauty...