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Beauty Extremes: The Skin Bleaching Phenomenon

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Beauty Extremes: The Skin Bleaching Phenomenon

Alexis Krauss

Our dear friend Scarlett Newman is back, this time to discuss one of the world's most distressing beauty extremes: skin bleaching. While every woman has the right to make choices about her appearance and cosmetically alter herself, we must stop and ask why in 2015 woman of color are turning to products to make their skin whiter. What does whiter skin mean and why in some countries is it still considered superior to darker skin? What are the side-effects of skin lightening products? Scarlett tackles these controversial and sensitive topics in the following Beauty Lies Truth editorial. Please share your thoughts! Xoxo Alexis

In many parts of the world, lighter skinned women are believed to be more beautiful, successful and able to find marriage. Because of this social construct, women are resorting to using bleaching creams and relying on other harsh procedures to lighten their skin. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 77% of Nigerian woman—the highest percentage in the world—use skin lightening products on a regular basis. Whether sold on the black market or commercially, skin lightening products have sufficiently contributed to Africa’s billion dollar beauty industry. In Nigeria, skin lightening can cost anywhere from a few dollars for a cream or a cleanser, to a few hundred dollars for salon procedures. The increasing demand for a Westernized aesthetic has skyrocketed the sale of these products not just in Africa but across the globe.

Popular skin lightening product currently available for sale.

Popular skin lightening product currently available for sale.

    While some people do use skin lightening products in moderation to combat acne and other related scars, much of the conversation surrounding bleaching is based on the idea of “wanting to be white.” The disturbing yet common belief that "white" is the purest and most celebrated aesthetic is indoctrinated into the minds of women and girls across the globe, further perpetuating self-doubt and self-hatred. Eurocentric beauty standards, in some way or another, are disseminated on various media platforms everyday, reinforcing to women of color that lighter=better. This isn’t a political article, but I feel that the politics of racism play an incredible role in why people with darker skin are turning to dangerous products and procedures to determine their worth. 

Skin bleaching is not a new phenomenon. This advertisement dates back to 1935.

Skin bleaching is not a new phenomenon. This advertisement dates back to 1935.

    Not surprisingly, these extreme beauty trends result in detrimental health consequences. Many skin bleaching products contain mercury and hydroquinone which can lead to kidney damage, skin rashes, discoloration and scarring. Like some products we consume here in the west, the harmful substances are not listed transparently on product labels and are instead couched in the language of green-washing. Skin lightening creams contain ingredients that slow the production of melanin in the skin’s outer layer. Melanin is a brown pigment in the skin that works as the body’s natural protection against the harmful effects of UV rays.   

    What even prompted me to create this post was an interview I found on the Internet with Cameroonian pop star, Dencia, now known more for her bleached skin than for her music. In the interview, Dencia was asked if she equated whiteness with beauty, and she responded, “white means pure. A lot of people don’t feel clean or confident with dark spots.” While skin-lightening attempts are usually manifestations of inadequecy and self-loathing, Dencia claims to have done this to be “daring” and for personal reasons. “I like trying things. I’m not doing it because I wanna have boyfriends. And I’m not doing it because I want anybody to accept me. It’s because I just wanted to do it,” she told EBONY Magazine

     Two years ago, Dencia came out with a cosmetic cream conveniently called “Whitenicious,” which was “intentionally” set out to treat dark spots and hyperpigmentation.  While she’s never outright said, “The whiter your skin is, the more beautiful you will be,” the advertisements and posters for Whitenicious communicate exactly that.  People look at the advertisements and think that the Whitenicious cream will be able to make them look whiter and therefore more desirable and socially acceptable. The message she’s sending out is incredibly controversial and the product she’s selling will, if used enough, result in bleaching your skin. 

Dencia before and after lightening her skin.

Dencia before and after lightening her skin.

    When approached about the health hazards of skin bleaching, she rejected the idea that there had been medical research done indicating that several skin lightening ingredients are carcinogenic, combating the statement by saying, “The air you breathe outside causes you cancer. Everything in the world causes cancer.” Dencia chooses to ignore cultural stigmas and health hazards in order to focus on the profit of her product. The first batch of Whitenicious sold out in 24 hours and has continued to sell considerably well since its release—she relies heavily on numbers to steer the conversation surrounding her product in a different direction. 

    This is a prime example of the type of #beautybullshit that I felt needed to be exposed on Beauty Lies Truth. A billion-dollar business built on the absurd idea that women with darker skin are inferior, and can be “cured” with dangerous cosmetic bleaching is tragic.  It’s sickening to know that women of color are choosing to put themselves through harmful bleaching procedures, and it’s heartbreaking that a large portion of the global beauty industry continues to champion dangerous products and perpetuate racist stereotypes. 

-Scarlett