Thursday, November 19, 2009

Skin bleaching

Since the mid-20th century, ‘skin bleaching’ has become more and more common among dark-skinned populations. It involves lightening skin color by means of topical preparations that contain hydroquinone, cortisone, or mercury. These products are effective, but prolonged use may damage the skin by making the epidermis thinner and by breaking down collagen fibers. Despite being condemned by the medical profession and increasingly restricted by governments, they can easily be obtained in various places: hair-stylist salons, subway stations, African public markets, etc.

Skin bleachers seem to be used the most in South Asia and its diaspora. Next come sub-Saharan Africa and its diaspora (West Indies, Brazil, United States, Western Europe, etc.), the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia. The market is mainly young and female. Thus, rate of use is 61.4% among Surinamese women of Indian origin less than 26 years old, as compared to 13.1% among young Surinamese of other origins (Javanese, African, etc.) (Menke, 2002).

In Africa, rate of use is 25% in Bamako, Mali, up to 52% in Dakar, Senegal, up to 35% in Pretoria, South Africa, and up to 77% in Lagos, Nigeria (Ntambwe, 2004). The practice has become so widespread that it has been nicknamed maquillage – ‘make-up’ (Ondongo, 1984). According to one African specialist, men encourage it by considering light-skinned women to be more attractive, intelligent, moral, desirable, and chaste. In contrast, dark-skinned women are said to look mean, evil, stupid, and untrustworthy (Ntambwe, 2004). This opinion is consistent with the results of a survey among Ghanaian women. Most of the respondents thought that men prefer light skin in a woman: “Sometimes if you really want to marry a particular man, you have to bleach” (Fokuo, 2009)

In Jamaica, users do not seem motivated by shame of their Black identity. Surveys show them having as much racial self-esteem as non-users. The motivation is more to make one’s face ‘cool’, to imitate one’s peers, to look pretty and attract a partner, and to feel good about oneself. There is also the influence of popular culture, such as Eurocentric beauty contests and singers who glorify women with light brown skin. In the dance-hall song Browning, Buju Banton says he loves his light-skinned girlfriend, his ‘browning’, more than his car, his motorbike, and his money. In Bleach On, Captain Barkey tells girls to keep on bleaching their skin (Charles, 2009).

Strangely, these products have become increasingly popular among South Asians, Africans, and West Indians for the past half-century, yet the same period has also seen these peoples regain much of their cultural independence. In advertising, magazines, or TV serials, one sees many more women from the local population than there were before.

Actually, it’s not so strange. Back when the local media recycled images of women from Western sources, the female audience had trouble identifying with them; there was a gap between the two. Because these images are now adapted to the local reality, they project a stronger normative influence on local women, who are keener to imitate them. These women, however, are still darker-skinned than the somatic norm being projected. This is especially so with Indian ‘Bollywood’ films but is also the case with serial dramas in Latin America and the Arab world.


Charles, C.A.D. (2009). Skin bleachers’ representations of skin color in Jamaica, Journal of Black Studies, 40, 153-170.

Charles, C.A.D. (2003). Skin bleaching, self-hate, and Black identity in Jamaica, Journal of Black Studies, 33, 711-728.

Fokuo, J. Konadu. (2009). The lighter side of marriage: Skin bleaching in post-colonial Ghana, Research Review NS, 25(1), 47-66.

Menke, J. (2002). Skin bleaching in multi-ethnic and multicolored societies. The case of Suriname, paper presented to the CSA Conference, Nassau, Bahamas, May 27 – June 1, 2002, Coping with Challenges, Contending with Change.

Ntambwe, M. (2004), 'Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the FAIREST of them all?' Science in Africa, March.

Ondongo, J. (1984), Noir ou blanc ? Le vécu du double dans la pratique du « maquillage » chez les Noirs, Nouvelle Revue d’Ethnopsychiatrie, 2, 37-65.


Ben10 said...

well Peter, you should have mentioned one of your own blog:

Just to make a point that NO, Deracialisation like bleaching is Not the fault of the evil white people who imposed their standards of easthetic to the poor victims of the colonisation.

Simon said...

Agree with Ben10, interesting stuff but the article could make it clearer that male preference for lighter skin long predates Western influence, and seems pretty much universal in all cultures. Which I know partly from reading this blog. :)

Peter Frost said...

Ben10 and Simon,

You're right. I should have made that point clearer. The post is actually from a larger text (a book) that covers the cross-cultural generality of preference for lighter-skinned women.

The problem of skin bleaching is a subset of a larger problem. More women are bleaching their skin in countries like India because they're entering a virtual social environment (via TV and other media) where most women are lighter-skinned. They're now comparing themselves to phenotypes that were much less common in earlier, non-virtual environments.

Ben10 said...

We could say the same thing for men. Hollywood popularized the tall blue eyed anglo-saxon type as some sort of super hero, like Humphrey Borgard, James Dean, Gary Cooper and all the Hollywood legends. In celtic-latin countries (like france in my case) this might have make life more difficult for smaller browned eyed boys. Via cinema, local girls could be acustomed to attractive body types that were rare around them, and could have raised their standard by delaying the mating, i.e waiting for the prince charming.
In eastern France were nordic types are (actually, were) common, I remember that body size, eyes and hair color were part of the equation on the attractiveness market for girls AND boys. I am sure girls rate themself accordingly well before ten, and maybe later for teenage boys.

There is a crooner singer from italian descent whose parents came to Lorraine (north east France)before WWII. His name's Claude Barzotti. In his song he said that as a kid (like 6 or 7 old), he was perfectly aware of his differences with local kids who where almost all blonds while he had pitch black hairs and he wanted to be like them. He actually said "je revais d'etre un enfant blond". So we all suffer from standards we cannot meet. Girls have their strategy: they try to attract desired genes by fooling them with hair bleaching or other artifices.
Men have the opposite strategy, they take the genes they want: the rich & famous who date almost exclusively nordic type models: Seal, Tiger Woods, Yannick Noah etc.

Tod said...

Indians seem to be somewhat different in that the men seem to use lighteners significantly more often than in other populations. A hold over from the traditional caste system giving less prestige to the dark skinned 'lower orders' presumably.

Anonymous said...

Ben10, Humphrey Bogart was short and brunet, not blond and blue-eyed. And I just googled Claude Barzotti and he really doesn't look much different from the average Frenchman. (Also he's from Belgium not Lorraine.)

Anonymous said...

curcumin is used in skin bleaching products and I think licorice is also---but dont hold me to the licorice (its been a while since I read that).

Curcumin apparently (when topically applied and not beholden to the acids of digestion) inhibits melanocytes. Our hair greys because of a increasing lack of catalese with age, which in turn keeps dermal levels of hydrogen peroxide in check. Its the increasing amounts of hydrogen peroxide that makes you hair grey and turn white by antagonizing melanocytes.

Anonymous said...

n the whole world's existence, at some pass‚, our inner foment goes out. It is then bust into enthusiasm beside an contend with with another magnanimous being. We should all be thankful for the duration of those people who rekindle the inner inspiration