The Psychology Of Skin Whitening
*POC: People of color.
*There are situations where dermatologists will sometimes prescribe lightening medications to treat various cutaneous diseases that lead to discoloration or unevenness of skin tone. Completely understandable. This piece, however, is not in regards to those situations.
According to a 2009 report from Global Industry Analysts: skin whitening is a 10 billion dollar industry, and is projected to be worth 23 billion by 2020. Even more startling is the rate at which these creams are being used. According to World Health Organization: 77% of Nigerian women and 59% of Togolese women, are reported to use whitening products on a regular basis. In addition, it is also reported that 40% of women from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea use whiteners, and over 60% of the skin care products in India consist of skin whitening agents.
Not to mention, these people are willing to undergo treatments even though burns, scars, infections, and cancer are very possible outcomes. Some of these creams even possess toxic levels of Mercury within them. So the question is: why do millions of POC around the world, feel the need to whiten their skin just to feel beautiful, desirable, or even comfortable? Where does such a desire stem from?
The motivation for doing so varies among people and cultures, however, the source is the same. In example, historically, in various countries within Asia, being of lighter skin was a sign of wealth and status, as those with darker skin were associated with workers of the land, and were thereby poor. The rich or upper class were usually inside, and were not exposed to the sun very much. Thus, for many Asians who bleach or whiten their skin, the motivation is a desire to not be considered poor, and thereby of lower status and attractiveness.
However, in contrast, even though segments of black Africans and black Americans also use skin whiteners, the motivation isn’t based on trying to appear wealthy or attractive due to historical notions, based in status, but is rather attributed to the conscious or unconscious belief that being closer to the skin tone of white people is more attractive, thanks in large part to the left over effects of slavery and colonialism.
Thus, we have two different motivations for skin whitening, one, the appearance of wealth and status; and the other, racially motivated insecurity, but they both have the same source: social information.
The gathering of social information is something that all human beings engage in, through a variety of mediums. Every time we turn on the TV, listen to the radio, read a magazine, or simply go out somewhere, we get our daily dose, whether consciously or unconsciously, of what to think about ourselves, what to think about others, and what to think of our relationship to these people, whether it’s good or bad. We gather the information and begin to draw an ever changing picture of the world we live in due to what we see and learn. TV, movies, radio, and general culture give us the tools to draw these pictures, however, they also give us, directly or indirectly, a standard by which to live, think, and believe.
The problem with this, is that for many people, what they see or hear becomes the measuring stick by which they judge themselves and others, often-times, leading to self-deprecating thoughts and behaviors. The teenage girls of Viti Levu, Fiji, provide a fitting example.
Dr. Ann Becker—the director of research at Harvard for eating disorders— found that after receiving TV in their province for the first time, the girls began to develop serious self-esteem issues in regards to their bodies. According to Dr. Becker, of the girls surveyed at the beginning of the study in 1995, only 3% induced vomiting as a way to control their weight, however, after only 3 years of having TV, that number more than quadrupled to 15%. Before TV, the beauty ideal comprised an embrace of curves and voluptuousness, after TV, the standard began to drastically change to reflect what they were learning on TV about beauty.
Whether we notice it or not, the impact and widespread nature of social information is often underestimated. It isn’t limited to commercials or movies, but can be seen in almost every level of society, including things as simple as everyday skin care products, such as: Dove’s ‘normal to dark’ summer glow cream, which came under fire for insinuating that white skin was normal and everything else, a deviation; Thailand's beauty ad that preached the message that “just being white, you will win”; and the cosmetics brand ColourPop, which drew controversy with their extremely poor naming choice of contouring stix for darker shades of skin.
If social information could have such a profound impact on teenage girls that only had TV for a few years, then what kind of impact would it have on children that grow up in a country where they receive a multitude of negative messages, in regards to their skin tone, their whole lives?
“Children are sponges, soaking up every verbal and nonverbal interaction”, said Dr. Asa Don Brown, and he’s correct. Children come into the world and are taught, not only by their parents, but also by the world around them (friends, T.V., radio, movies, music, etc) what to think and how to behave. They’re basically empty vessels that largely get filled with whatever is around them. Thus, for young children of color, what are they learning about themselves when they see commercials that depict darker skinned Indians as unattractive or unsuccessful, yet when that same person in the commercial uses skin whiteners they magically become successful and attractive? What do they learn when they constantly see themselves depicted in stereotypical roles, such as Latinos as maids or gangsters, African-Americans as thugs, and Asians as wimpy nerds? After awhile, they learn that they are inferior, undesirable, or unpleasant, and some thereby begin to exhibit behaviors that define such a belief. After all, the more one sees or hears something, the likelier they are to believe it.
There are some that may think, “it’s just a commercial”, or “get over it, they’re just images on a screen, they have no real power over anything”. However, if that’s true, then why was there was such an angry reaction over that cheerios commercial that featured a mixed family, or the controversy that ensued over a black girl being cast as Annie in a remake two years ago? How about the time Amandla Stenberg received a torrent of racist backlash over her playing of “Rue” in The Hunger Games, even though the character was described as having dark brown skin in the books? What about the flurry of “white genocide” comments that littered twitter during the #BoycottStarWarsVII, because there happened to be a main character that was a black storm trooper.
In a fictional world of aliens of all colors, shapes, and sizes, waves of pissed off people went to twitter to vent their frustration, anger, and ignorance, over what they perceived as an encouragement of “anti-white propaganda”, and this over simple images.
If social information didn’t possess any power to affect those that are exposed to it, then I highly doubt these good, wholesome Americans would have wasted their time and breath, complaining about the offensive dark people in their movies and commercials. If social information didn’t possess any power to affect people, then I highly doubt over 70% of Nigerians would be using whiteners, and skin whiteners in India wouldn’t make up over 60% of the skin care market.
You see, due to the extensive love affair between colourism and social information, many dark skinned people around the world struggle with their skin tone, and some struggle to the point that they’d do anything to alleviate the insecurity they feel from their melanated skin, even getting rid of it altogether to inch a little closer to a whiter, paler ideal, and maybe, just maybe, enjoy some of its benefits.