Growing up in England, in the UK, I notice that there is a fairly commonplace desire for tanned skin here. Sunbeds and fake-tanning are big business in Britain, with many people wanting that sun-kissed, just-got-back-from-the-beach look.
I am a distinctly pale Caucasian individual, and for some bizarre reason, I also seem to be the palest member of my immediate family (perhaps partly down to a lack of vitamin D as I rarely venture outside). Anyway, I do not tan at all in sunlight – I burn easily and am often reaching for the factor 50 sun cream during the few days of British summer we get. I spent a time in my teenage years craving a tan; wanting to look like my friends who had just come back from their summer holidays with that exotic, brown glow. Instead, I was the person they compared their skin tone to, arms next to mine as they pondered just how tanned they had become.
Please put away your violins everyone! As I have grown and matured, I have learned to accept my skin tone for what it is and am very careful to avoid sun damage. Still, can you imagine my surprise when I found out that, in some cultures, whiter skin is actively desired?!
Across some parts of Asia, including India, Thailand and South Korea, pale skin can be a sought after trait. It is only since becoming more familiar with Korean culture through K-Pop that I learnt of the existence of skin whitening creams. It is very important to state here and now that these products are marketed as something to help lighten dark blemishes and scars on your skin, but the popularity of such products as well as the skin bleaching culture in general in these parts of the world has prompted many to ask questions about the desire for lighter skin tones in some cultures in general.
Just quickly googling the term ‘Skin Whitening’ brings up a plethora of different articles on the subject; many show you how to lighten your skin tone with the use of natural products like honey, lemon and yoghurt. There are also many products available for skin whitening shown, usually costing around £20-30. One product claims to:
“Whiten your skin naturally and safely…improve and balance your skin tone…prevent discolorations, darkening of the skin, and hyperpigmentation…reduce the appearance of age spots, acne marks, freckles, liver spots, sunspots, and much more!”
It is quite understandable that people would look for a solution to these things. The presence of scars, for example, can really affect a person’s self-confidence, they may also remind someone of a traumatic event that they wish to put behind them. This level of localised skin whitening is arguably not a problem. However, you do not have to go far to find an altogether more complex and worrying side to this industry.
This article from the Daily Mail (a British publication that seems to relish writing about all that is even slightly controversial in the world of beauty) includes an interview with television presenter and model Irene Major, who has gone to what many call extreme lengths to gain paler skin through the consistent use of skin lightening creams. She states in the piece that she was always brought up with the idea that the paler your skin is, the prettier you are.
In terms of Korea specifically, another Daily Mail article highlighted the backlash a Korean advertisement received after posing the question “Do you wanna be white?” on a skincare product advert that was placed on a Billboard in New York. In this case though, it was defended as a ‘loss in translation’. It seems that the ideas of ‘brightening’ and ‘whitening’ with are sometimes conflated in this confusing beauty arena.
As quoted in this piece, sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn suggests:
“In the case of the Far East, in countries like Japan, Korea, and China, it doesn’t have to do with trying not to be Asian,” Dr. Glenn explains. “In those cultures, there’s a long tradition for women of light skin to be equated with beauty, and also there’s a class element. [It means] you’re not working in the sun, which is an important [distinction]in an agricultural society.”
This means that, whilst many may think of skin whitening culture in places like Africa and Asia as something to do with wishing to become Caucasian, it actually can be more to do with perceptions of class, and by extension, one’s wealth.
WebMD highlights some of the potential issues that can come along with using skin whiteners to change your entire complexion tone – noting that some skin lighteners can even contain mercury (which is banned for use in skin whitening products in the Europe and the USA) as, of course, it can lead to fatal poisoning.
A study conducted on the use of common skin-whitening products in Nigeria concluded that:
“…the eight bleaching creams can be genotoxic to body cells. It is therefore, recommended that their use should be avoided, except when prescribed by a physician. Government agencies such as NAFDAC and Consumer Protection Agency should embark on aggressive anti-bleaching campaign and awareness programmes to educate the public on the adverse effects of skin bleaching. The public should also be enlightened on the need to change the perception that “fairness is beauty” and made to understand that by the practice of good personal hygiene, good diet and healthy life style, it is possible for the skin to look good and radiant.”
– (Akortha, Niemogha and Edobor, 2012:9).
Overall, the aforementioned is exactly the point I personally wish to hammer home with this article. Beauty is a social construct that differs from culture to culture and it makes me very sad to think that there are people out there who are scrutinising their skin with frustration and feeling ugly purely because it is not the tone they perceive is beautiful. Your skin tone is a part of you, it signifies your heritage and, without wanting to sound so saccharine sweet you become nauseated – it is beautiful no matter what its shade is.
Of course, while the focus here has been on the practice of skin-whitening, tanning also presents its own dangers. Have a look at this page on the Cancer Research UK website for details about the health risks associated with sunbed use.
To end this editorial, I will leave you with a wonderful speech made by actress Lupita Nyong’o, within which she highlights the importance of loving the skin you’re in:
DISCLAIMER *Graphics featured in this article are for illustrative purposes only, and should not be considered indication of the featured idol’s use of such products*
What are your opinions on this topic?
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[Sources: Pureclinica, Daily Mail Website, Refinery29, WebMD, Cancer Research UK Website
Akortha, E.E., Niemogha, M.T. and Edobor, O. (June, 2012) “Mutagenic and genotoxic screening of eight commonly used skin whitening creams in Nigeria” in Bayero Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences, 5(1). Available at: http://www.ajol.info/index.php/bajopas/article/view/80929/71155].