Shades of Beauty: The Issue of Bleaching Within…
We’ve all heard them. There is the backhanded compliment: “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” The childhood insult: “You’re black like burnt toast.” And the infamous “Stop acting light-skinned.” These phrases, often said as a joke, are insidious remarks made to reinforce the idea that darker skin is not valuable, and therefore dark-skinned people should exhibit a particular set of characteristics connected to the value of their skin.
Beyond being seen as less attractive, these characteristics often relate to ideas that dark-skinned people are angry, violent, less intelligent and less capable of success than their lighter-skinned counterparts. What is worse, these stereotypes are drilled into the minds of children from a very young age; by their classmates, friends, neighbors, and very often by loved ones. If we teach dark-skinned children, specifically dark-skinned girls, that their image is not valuable, not worth loving, and that their character is somehow connected to this, what else are we to expect when they want to change that image?
Skin bleaching is a global phenomenon occurring among people of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. While certainly not alone, Black women and girls change their hair, clothes and eye color to adhere to societal standards of beauty, yet bleaching has a particular context within the global Black community. Famous artists, musicians and sports icons such as Vybz Kartel, Sammy Sosa, Mshoza, and Dencia, to name a few, have been attempting to validate stereotypical European standards of beauty through their words and in their actions. Color hierarchies are constantly reinforced in the media. Just recently, in the Nigerian presidential election, a meme arose with a side-by-side comparison of the daughters of both former president Goodluck Jonathan and current president-elect Muhammadu Buhari. Using the two young women as symbols for the election, the meme was laced with obvious skin color undertones, demonstrating the pervasiveness of colorism in society.
Kenyan filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii’s short film Yellow Fever is a cinematic exploration of skin bleaching and its harmful effects on young girls. Jennifer Sefa-Boakye of okayafrica notes that this film “explores the effects of Eurocentric beauty ideals, as disseminated by mainstream media and advertising, on African women.” Bleaching is deeply connected to the construction of racial hierarchies, where European standards of beauty are at the top and darker-skinned people, particularly African or people of African descent, are at the bottom.
Indeed, skin bleaching is a complex issue; while many simply dismiss it as a form of self-hate, bleaching is deeply tied not just to aesthetic Eurocentric standards of beauty, but to the social, political and economic privilege that comes with them. Many discussions surrounding this issue are remiss in not mentioning these key points, such as the recent documentary Light Girls, which deals with the way lighter-skinned Black women are treated, but does not engage this larger question of privilege; a privilege that basically translates into lighter-skinned people having more access to economic and social opportunity and stability.
This is not to say that light-skinned people, especially light-skinned women, do not experience discrimination within the Black community; there are certainly oppressions that lighter-skinned Black people face. There is, however, a benefit to European constructions of beauty that light-skinned Black people enjoy and that must be talked about in order to have any meaningful discussion on the subject of colorism. Wanting to be lighter-skinned also translates into wanting to be rid of the negative identities and social markers attached to dark skin; children and adults who bleach, or aspire to birth lighter-skinned children, desire this privilege that becomes attached to light skin. We understand why bleaching occurs, but when do we say enough is enough?
Because of the historic rejection of dark skin, there is an ever-present need to reaffirm the beauty of young darker-skinned girls; an affirmation that should be reflected in the images of the Black women they see on television, in films, in advertisements, etc. The musical artists they listen to should look like them, not because there needs to be some kind of quota for seeing dark-skinned people, but because everyone is capable of achievement and success.
What does it mean for a beauty aesthetic to exist within the global Black community that is anti-African, anti-Black, anti-dark-skinned, and which most assuredly contradicts embracing oneself and everything that is beautiful about one? We are losing our children’s ability to imagine themselves as beautiful, and when one cannot imagine oneself as beautiful, intelligent and worthy, what does love then look like? How do we teach our children to love themselves? Ng’endo Mukii’s film is a start. It teaches us that despite the overwhelming challenge of re-educating ourselves and our children on how to love oneself, action toward change can occur, but we must be committed to doing the work.