Skin lightening (300 BC- ), also called skin whitening or skin bleaching, is where you lighten your skin. It is common in India, Africa, China the Middle East and the Caribbean where billions are made selling skin-lightening creams. It used to be common in Japan and among blacks in America. It is still common among blacks in Britain.
The most famous case of skin lightening is, however, American: Michael Jackson. His skin went from brown to snow white before our eyes in a matter of years. Many believed he secretly wanted to be white, but, as it turns out, he did in fact have vitiligo like he said. His doctor lightened his skin only to even out the effects of the disease.
The most common way to lighten your skin is to use a skin cream. Fair & Lovely, sold in over 40 countries, is the top-selling one in India. They say it is made from papaya juice and tomatoes. I am not sure I can believe that.
The most common substance used in skin lighteners is hydroquinone. It can damage your skin (pictured) and even screw up your kidneys (not pictured). In much of Europe it is outlawed because it causes cancer in mice. In America it is allowed at 2% concentration while in Africa you can get it at 4% and, sometimes, mixed with with more dangerous things like mercury!
But the thing about hydroquinone is that it works: it does in fact stop your skin from producing melanin, the stuff that makes it dark. It is also used to develop photographs.
Why do people do it? One ad put it this way:
Yes, I am closer to white, more desirable and better.
Ads nakedly play on people’s colourism: the idea that lighter-skinned people are, well, not just better looking but happier and more successful in life.
A hundred years ago most of the world was ruled by white people. So in places like Africa and the Caribbean colourism is part of the colonial mentality that still lives on.
In India, South Africa and America it runs much deeper than that: lighter-skinned people took over those places and set up pigmentocracies: societies based on skin colour.
But none of that seems to apply to China and Japan. There it seems to be the old thing of poor people being darker because of having to work outside in the fields. In White America it is now the opposite: only the well-to-do have the time and money to lay in the sun in the tropics.
Some say men just naturally prefer lighter-skinned women because even within a given race women are generally lighter than men and women are at their lightest when they are most fertile.
In America skin lightening largely fell out of fashion when colourism weakened considerably in the the 1960s with “Black is beautiful” and the rise of black pride – and, maybe even more to the point, the rise of the black middle-class.
Now in India some are pushing “Dark is beautiful”!
– Abagond, 2009.