Since women of colour began using skin whitening products in response to racial oppression in eighteenth century America, unlike legal slavery, the trade has grown not died. Worse still is that what was once used to mask women of African origin desperate to pass in a white society that often deemed their natural skin ugly and unacceptable, it now provides a Venetian mask for all women of colour. A recent Middle Eastern advertisement for Fair and Lovely Skin Cream features a young woman who is trying to gain work as a television presenter. When things weren't going to plan she had a revelation, '...the obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin'. The ad ends with the words, ‘Fair and Lovely... For total fairness'.
The quest for white skin continues to Japan through Mikiko Ashikari's 2005 article in Vol 10 of the Journal of Material Culture titled, Cultivating Japanese Whiteness. Here she details the language commonly found in Japanese adverts:
The sensation of whiteness (shiro) on your skin (Helena Rubinstein)
The best shortcut to whiteness (Givenchy)
Let's cultivate whiteness, every day (Clinique)
What I have touched is a drop of white science (Yves Saint-Laurent)
Double action, for the skin of the future which goes beyond whiteness (Dior)
Clarins has discovered the white skin (Clarins)
A new experience of whiteness (Carita)
In Pacific Asia alone, where the skin-whitening market outside of Europe and North America is anchored, 2009 estimates rated its value at €13bn. Whether the thought originated in slavery, class, or elsewhere, some consider that a war on skin colour is being fought on the faces of women of all hues, from golden brown to black, Asia to Africa and South America.
As with all wars, not everyone plays fair. On the one hand there is the perfectly made up world of commercial cosmeceutical purity, yet this can be contrasted with some illegal products available on the black market which can contain banned chemicals such as mercury, hydroquinone and corticosteroids.
In London in 2007 shop owners Yinka and Michael Oluyemi were fined £100,000 for selling 'banned' skin-bleaching products that contained the regulated substance hydroquinone and other illegal steroids.
With the reported illegal trade of products containing regulated substances such as hydroquinone, EU law enforcement and customs are fighting a losing battle against under-the-counter sales and the systematic use of the internet as the main medium for reaching customers. Just Google 'hydroquinone', 'skin whitening' or 'skin bleaching' and see how many opportunities to buy arise.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy with what some perceive to be the mass marketing of whiteness. In India, where skin colour and class has been inexorably linked for centuries, a 2008 article in The Independent detailed a row that followed the broadcast of mini series of adverts promoting 'White Beauty', a skin whitening cream produced by Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL).
Some observers consider that there are two distinct sectors to the contemporary marketing of skin-whitening cosmetics:
1. High-end but relatively expensive skin-whitening products which have been developed for, and simultaneously marketed to affluent women of colour to 'fade discolouration', and to white middle aged women for removing the corporeal signs of the aging and achieving a youthful-looking, flawless white skin.
2. Cheap, low-end and often highly toxic products aimed mainly at poor non-white consumers.
From Hydroquinone to the Future
Molecular formula: C6H4(OH)2
Hydroquinone is a pigment control/ melanin inhibiting product designed for cosmetic use that is banned in European Union member states, Pacific Asia and in some African countries. In the USA over the counter sales of skin-whitening products must contain less than 2% hydroquinone.
A 1996 World Health organisation report on Hydroquinone references cases suggesting that skin lightening creams containing 2% hydroquinone have produced leukoderma, as well as ochronosis. Leukoderma is a loss of skin pigment that effectively turns skin white and its opposite ochronosis, increases pigmentation,effectively turning patches of skin brown.
On 9 September 2009, Reuters reported on the FDA's (Food and Drug Administration – USA) continuing investigation into whether or not to continue with their 2006 proposal to ban the use of hydroquinone in pigment control products due to fears that it may act as a carcinogen. The cosmetics industry have responded to this increasing global demand for skin whitening products by addressing the associated health risks that might limit their ability to take advantage of huge potential markets in East Asia, Africa and beyond through the development and production of new, safer skin-whitening agents.
In a 2007 press release for Actiwhite LS 9808 the manufactures Cognis acknowledged that 'The skin whitening market is no longer limited to Asian countries, but has become an essential part of the global face and body care market' and that they were offering a product with 'a high capacity to decrease melanogenesis – the process which is responsible for the creation of melanin, which in turn is responsible for the coloration of the human skin.' By 2010 the worldwide anti-aging product market is estimated to reach U.S.$ 115.5 billion (Global Industry Analysts 2008).
When considering the desire to alter our image and the money involved, the question that remains in 2009 is this: are women of colour still actively seeking a Euro vision of beauty or is the desire to achieve skin a few shades lighter now inherent in our make up?
Dr Amina Mire
Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Research Interests: Anti-racist/anti-colonial research; women and health; feminist sociology of knowledge; skin-whitening; anti-ageing; biotechnology and nanotechnology cosmeceutical biomedicine; peace building and ecological justice.
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