What is the connection between lighter skin, and society’s ideal of beauty? And do poorly regulated beauty products make this a “toxic” obsession?
In the 19th Century, when the Grimm Brothers’ Evil Queen asked the Magic Mirror: ‘Who is the fairest of them all?’ the term ‘fair’ was commonly synonymous with ‘beautiful’ rather than pale. But it’s probably no coincidence at all that the mirror bestowed that honour on Snow White, the Evil Queen’s step-daughter, so-named for her flawless, whiter than white skin.
Who knows how far the concept that ‘beauty equals white’ goes back in human history, but it certainly featured prominently throughout the eras of slave trading, colonialism and racial segregation. It has been such a pervasive idea, that we have surged into the 21st Century with skin lightening, and other potentially harmful beauty practices and modifications aimed at achieving ‘whiteness’, at an all-time high.
In South Africa, skin lightening and hair straightening was noted in the days of Apartheid, when a paler complexion and hair that couldn’t hold a pencil could win you a more advantageous racial classification, and therefore, greater access to resources and jobs, benefits and opportunities. Despite the legacy of the likes of the legendary Steve Biko and political power shift to democracy, consumption data makes it clear that skin lightening in South Africa has significantly escalated post-1994.
The notion that ‘beauty equals white’ is so deeply pervasive that it has powerfully coursed over racial lines to also become an issue of ‘colourism’, which describes the preference for lighter skin tones within your own racial grouping. And so today, many Indian families still urge their young people to match up with light-skinned beaus; and scores of upwardly mobile young men prize ‘yellow bones’ – a term they use to describe the women in their communities with paler skin tones. The current markets for skin lightening products in Africa and Asia are multi-billion-dollar strong and growing; clear evidence that the practice is widespread and ever-increasing.
What we have today that’s different from before is the dominance of the 24/7 mass media obsessed with social status pumped up by money, individual power – and an idea of beauty fixed still on the ideal of straight, flowing locks and flawless white skin – the fairest of them all. While it was once generally accepted that few amongst us were born to be dazzlingly beautiful, the powerful global beauty industry now has so many of us convinced that if we just buy the products, treatments and surgeries they peddle, often with the help of celebrities, we can each strive towards exceptional beauty. Through endless marketing and advertising campaigns we are brainwashed to believe that to keep trying to attain a standard of beauty that is impossible for most is somehow more admirable and valiant than accepting your appearance as just one, naturally ever-changing aspect of yourself and rooting your self-worth firmly in your whole person.
However, the pursuit of a narrowly defined standard of beauty is not just harmful to the psyche, it can hurt the body too. These are concerns of Research Psychologist and PHD student, Meagan Jacobs who is speaking at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning. Meagan is currently studying the influence of media on the aesthetics of skin lightening and other beauty practices in South Africa so as to inform policy and the regulation of the beauty industry.
She points out that skin lightening products may contain active ingredients such as mercury, hydroquinone and its derivatives; topical steroids and resorcinol which can, with chronic use, cause irreversible skin damage. Cosmetics containing these ingredients can cause itching, burning, darker skin patches, skin irritation and even skin cancer.
Meagan says, “South Africa does have the strictest policy in the world, prohibiting advertising of products to ‘bleach, whiten or lighten’ the skin. Instead South African made and bona fide imported products are marketed using synonyms such as ‘radiance’, ‘bright’, ‘light’ and ‘clear’. The problem is, is that our markets, especially at community level, are flooded with unregulated products made in other countries that do not adhere to South African standards when it comes to formulations, labelling, instructions and on-pack marketing.” Lower income women who have set their sights on a lighter complexion are more vulnerable to using, or misusing products that are unsafe and that can cause lasting skin damage.
The media does sometimes publish content that starts critical conversations about skin lightening, provides information about the dangers of the practice and occasionally gives celebrities who speak out against skin lightening a high profile. But according to Meagan, this cannot stand up to the continual barrage of influence to get consumers to aspire to a ‘beauty equals white’ ideal: “It does not counter-balance the marketing and advertising of skin lightening products, nor the power influence of celebrities. Because of the ever-present dichotomy which exists between light and dark skins, it is not likely to be counterbalanced by anything at all across mass media platforms. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to a choice that you make whether you want to use the products or not.”
Meagan informs that there are some skin lightening products that can be used safely. You need an understanding of the active ingredients, and their concentrations, which should be to be clearly indicated in the product labelling in order to determine their safety. Another important safety consideration is for the product you use to be prescribed specifically for you by a dermatologist who can oversee and help you to ensure its correct use.
In order for skin lightening to become a safer practice in South Africa more needs to be done to stem the tide of unregulated products and ensure that all products available adhere to the regulations. But Meagan suggests we can take ensuring consumer safety a step further: “A point of departure would be to change the classification of skin lightening products from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. This would result in greater control of products, help to eliminate problems with labelling and provide more product information which would empower the consumer in their decision to use skin lightening products.”
While optimising the regulatory environment for skin lightening products is vital, there also needs to be ongoing conversations about the context for the practice. It might take many conversations over generations, but it would be a particular success to see ‘the beauty equals white’ notion finally drown in the magnificence of human diversity.
Get inspiration for these conversations from Meagan Jacob’s presentation at the 7th annual SACAP Festival of Learning in Cape Town on 24th and 25th of May 2018.
The Festival of Learning also takes place in Johannesburg on 17th and 18th of May.
Tickets for the 2018 Festival of Learning are available through Webtickets. Costs are R200 for the full-day programme, which includes dialogues and panel discussion. Tickets for the short-talk evening programme which includes catering and networking opportunities is R200. There is a special offer for students at R80 per ticket.