Apr 5, 2010

The Colour Complex

At one point I thought the skin-lightening craze was one of black Africa’s dirty little secrets; little did I know that similar practices are employed by African Americans, Jamaicans, and South Asians among others. The trend is seemingly on the rise with inexpensive black market products containing powerful but illegal bleaching agents selling briskly in the developing world.

Why is skin lightening practiced?

One commonly repeated rationale is that a lighter complexion is associated with wealth, and physical attractiveness. It is well known that during slavery years and periods of racial segregation, light-skinned people were often given preferable treatment as compared to their dark-skinned peers.

In modern times, television and advertising clearly have a role in perpetuating this perception by portraying “whiteness or lightness” as a symbol of what is attractive. As an example, cosmetic companies promote products designed to help dark-skinned women look “lighter”, and this lighter skin is portrayed to be glowing and healthier. L’Oreal has one such product on the Asian market
called White Perfect. Part of the marketing tagline reads: “Less yellowish complexion, more rosy glow. Reveal your true inner fairness!”

To be fair, while some of these social norms are remnants of slavery, colonial rule and deep rooted cultural stereotypes, we as a people need to shoulder some of the responsibility. We need to shed this burdensome psychological baggage.

How do we move forward?

Banning skin lightening products will not stop the products from entering the marketplace, and will only have the effect of driving them further underground. The only way we can make a positive impact on preventing this practice from spreading is through continuous campaigns raising awareness. There needs to be a shift in perceptions and educating people on the long-term side effects of using these products.

I know this sounds overly simplistic and perhaps naïve, but we have to start somewhere.

Talk to your sister, your daughter, your friends, your co-workers, anyone! Start (or continue) the conversation – “why do you think people lighten their skin? Is it to fit in, or to feel more attractive? Do we have cultural stereotypes that exacerbate this practice?”


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