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. http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2004/march/skinlightening.htm
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.