In this paper, Aishah Khan explores the history and
culture behind skin whitening.
Skin-whitening is an age-old phenomenon which has been adopted by white women as well as women of colour as early as 1600 in Japan (Ashikari, 89, 2005) and 1889 in the United States (Mire, par.2, 2005). It is a practise which incites controversy, not only because it is questionable that women across ethnicities wish to appear white and consume these products, but there are also serious health risks that arise due to the use of skin-whitening products. Dangerous substances such as mercury, corticosteroids, and hydroquinone have routinely been discovered to be used to manufacture such products, yet their popularity soars (Mire, par.8, 2005). These substances are extremely toxic, and they have severe effects on those who use them. It is significant, then, to note that while white women claim that they use these products to appear younger, non-white women use these products to actually lighten their complexion (Mire, par.7, 2005). By trying to embody perfect whiteness despite the negative effects, what are women demonstrating about global values? Some say that women of colour’s desire to appear lighter is a lasting consequence of colonial oppression (Craven & Goon, par. 3, 2003). Others claim that it is imperative to distinguish oneself from darkness as much as possible; there is an existing dichotomy of white (purity, clarity) and black (dull, ugly) (Craven & Goon, par.6, 2003). This paper will seek to illuminate the significance of skin-whitening across the globe, as well as analyze the social and political implications of this phenomenon and its representation
in the media.
To begin, it is imperative to explain that skin-whitening is not an insignificant cross-cultural practise – it rather illuminates greater global values and priorities. It is also important to note that it is not specific to one region, but it is a globalised practise and cultures participate in it in their own ways, through both manufacturing and advertising. Skin-whitening is advertised to white women as an anti-aging strategy (Mire, par.1, 2005) but to women of colour as the key to appear or pass as white (Mire, par.3, 2005). This establishes aging as an undesirable condition which must be rectified (Mire, par.1, 2005) and whiteness as a commodity to be accessed (Craven & Goon, par.3, 2003). But why is whiteness so desirable? Throughout history, it has been repeatedly exemplified that whiteness is a guarantee of certain privileges within society, and it is thus very exclusive (Mire, par.3, 2005). In addition, the scores of women who use such products – basically women from every continent – sometimes wish to distance themselves as much as possible from “darkness”, and the slightest possibility of association with blackness (Mire, par.4, 2005). There is a concept of “us” and “them” that skin-whitening practises encourages, and it is especially notable in Japanese and African skin-whitening customs (Ashikari, 73, 2005). In Japan, it is very complimentary to refer to someone as fair or white but extremely insulting to refer to them as dark, and it is socially unacceptable to do so (Ashikari, 85, 2005). In some African countries where skin-whitening practises are considered to be a result of colonization, those who participate do it inconspicuously because it is considered to be a self-hating, conformist action (Mire, par.12, 2005). Skin-whitening is an implicitly racist practise, however because it is so widely performed, shamelessly advertised, and projected onto the population people do not see it this way.
Additionally, the popularity of skin-whitening is significant because it has been banned in so many places, however it is still so accessible and easy. Many African countries have banned it due to the health risks it poses (Mire, par.12, 2005), however the products are rather easy to import, either legally or illegally (Mire, par.18, 2005). For example, cheaper products which typically target poorer ethnic women and are more likely to contain harmful toxins enter Western countries, and while the health authorities are perfectly aware that they are dangerous, little has been done to prevent their proliferation (Mire, par.18, 2005). As a result of the generally passive attitude towards skin-whitening practises across the globe it is a booming industry that meets little resistance, despite its numerous social and political implications.
One of the most notable social implications of the embodiment of whiteness through whitening practices is the impelling and solidifying of social hierarchies. Due to the pressures to become white and advertisements projecting that whiteness is an optimal trait to covet, it in turn becomes more acceptable and more respectable to appear whiter (Mire, par.3, 2005). Whiteness denotes privilege, as previously mentioned, and those who display how white they are are at least thought to enjoy that privilege, which is a vital societal virtue (Mire, par.3, 2005). Furthermore, it widens the already existing divide between white people and people of colour because as a result of claiming whiteness is a good thing, it implies that, alternatively, darkness is a bad thing to be avoided and not commented on (as is demonstrated in Japanese culture) (Ashikari, 78, 2005). This is what helps to regenerate the cycle of whiteness and darkness meaning pure versus dirty, good versus evil, desirable versus detestable. This is a social ill because these ideas already exist due to the combination of colonization and a history of white privilege, and although it is a common and familiar practise it does not mean that it is acceptable.
Another social implication which can be pointed out due to skin-whitening practises is the notion that aging naturally is a pathological condition which must be amended (Mire, par.1, 2005). This means that women who age naturally by acquiring wrinkles, slack skin and so on are becoming useless and expired within society. Aging naturally is not a dishonorable thing – it is completely normal as it happens to everyone, however women are being made to feel as though it is abhorrent and to remain accepted within society they should try to reverse it. Also, because whitening creams are advertised to white women as anti-aging confections rather than skin-whitening ones, this insinuates that while darker women must seek to become whiter, white women have to seek to become more youthful; on the whole, this suggests that women are always a step away from truly earning their place within society, and women of colour are always at least a step below white women.
There are also political implications that stem from the globalized desire to embody whiteness through the act of skin-whitening. While in the social sphere skin-whitening can be met with hostility and create certain tiers and gaps, this can also be reflected on the political scale. This is because the social sphere can greatly influence the political – if there are social gaps within a society due to the practise of skin whitening, it can be stated that on a larger scale this act can socially reproduce systemic inequality (Marti, 265, 2014). If whiteness is a virtue to be desired and acquired, this encourages the idea that to be whiter is to be better, and this perpetuates the inherently racist and discriminatory ideologies as well as policies in many different countries and regions around the world. As stated above, whiteness accrues certain privileges and respect, and this is reflected in many laws (legal and social) as well as values held by many societies (Mire, par.3, 2005). It is evident in phenomenons such as racial profiling, the level of access white people have to jobs in comparison with their ethnic competitors, and so on. Many different legal and political policies from different countries around the world have exemplified this – for example, the inclination of many US cops to arrest and physically restrain black civilians in comparison to white civilians.
Additionally, an important aspect of politics is economics. To be an influential political power, a country must have a strong economy. China’s and Japan’s economies rely on these practises, as they are among the most lucrative industries in these countries. In China, the skin-whitening and body-modification industry is the fifth highest economic sector – it is not only encouraged by the public (including parents) and media, but it is necessary to drive the economy (Jesus, par.9, 2005). This legitimizes skin-whitening, therefore it becomes a normalized practise not just locally, but on a global political scale. This is because by it being so massive and influential in some of the world’s most powerful nations, it cannot really be debased through mere doubts. There are many questionable actions the world’s superpowers make, and while the public may have opposing opinions about these actions, it is not as though they can diminish them. Therefore, because the economic industry of skin-whitening is so monumental and beneficial to many nation’s economies, this politicizes it and makes it an acceptable cross-cultural practise.
Finally, one can also consider the use of the mass media to advertise and popularize the practise of skin-whitening. Through online advertising, for example, it is extremely easy to spread these advertisements and thus positive projections of whiteness. There are absolutely no restrictions which cannot be bypassed on the internet, and therefore anyone anywhere can view and internalize these advertisements (Mire, par.16, 2005). The media is a huge reflection of a person or company’s values – hence if an entire country media noticeably promotes the usage of skin-whitening products or other modification technologies, their values as a country and political power become evident. China and Japan as well as South-East Asian countries openly advertise skin-whitening products, hence it is completely normalized. So, in summation, the media as extremely instrumental to the advertisement of skin-whitening products, the attitude that it is an important characteristic to have, and thus the larger notion that whiteness is the true norm and better than any alternative.
Skin-whitening is a shockingly popular as well as accepted custom world wide, and it has become so influential that it is shamelessly advertised and even used to bolster economies. Whether it is a result of colonization or not, it cannot be disputed that people who are of darker complexions wish to lighten themselves because they believe this would be beneficial. The social and political implications demonstrate this claim entirely – there is an inherent classist and racial dimension to the practise of skin-whitening, and embodying whiteness is seen as virtuous across societies, which is problematic. It is imperative that this practise is more publicly and critically addressed in the global community, because it is not conducive to a more harmonized, tolerant world in any sense as it simply perpetuates racism.
Ashikari, Mikiko (2005). Cultivating Japanese Whiteness: The ‘Whitening’ Cosmetics Boom and the Japanese Identity. Journal of Material Culture, 10(1), 73-91.
Goon, Patricia & Craven, Allison (2003). Whose Debt?: Globalization and Whitefacing in Asia. Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, (9). Retrieved from http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue9/gooncraven.html
Jesús, Attilio (2005, June). That Global Look: China’s New faces. Le Monde diplomatique.
Retrieved from http://mondediplo.com/2005/06/17beauty
Marti, Josep (2014). African Realities: Body, Culture and Social Tensions. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp.265. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=VCxQBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA265&lpg=PA265&dq=josep+marti+skin+whitening+political+implications&source=bl&ots=QNB5vx2DA2&sig=ixCLNQASbcaAlhHRnwEWuTzpqG4&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwit34bc9MvXAhVBF2MKHX8WDyUQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=josep%20marti%20skin%20whitening%20political%20implications&f=false
Mire, A. (2005). Pigmentation and Empire: The Emerging Skin Whitening Industry. http://www.counterpunch.org/2005/07/28/the-emerging-skin-whitening-industry/
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