Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World

Article excerpt

A cursory search on any Internet search engine reveals hundreds of skin-lightening (1) websites that provide information for would-be consumers about the "best" skin-lightening products and strategies. Lighterskin.org, whiterskin.com, skinwhitening.org, skin-whitening-product.com, and skinwhiteningexperts.com all purport to share with readers the newest information on, and reviews of, skin-lightening products. How is information about skin-lightening conveyed today and how do competing discourses frame the nature of skin-lightening differently? This paper investigates three discursive frameworks on skin-lightening around the globe: the beauty discourse, the public health discourse, and the new cosmetic surgery discourse. Each discourse frames skin-lightening, body manipulation, and social actors in different and important ways, revealing much about the global beauty industry, neo-colonial and post-colonial racial ideologies, and the ongoing role of women of color's bodies as the battleground for these conflicts.

Skin-lightening, or bleaching, has reached epidemic levels in scores of nations around the globe, and especially in many African nations including Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa, and Nigeria (Adebajo, 2002; Blay, 2009; Harada et al, 2001; Lewis et al, 2009; Mahe et al, 1993; Mahe, Ly & Gounongbe, 2004; Olumide et al, 2008). Although both men and women engage in skin-whitening practices of various sorts, women generally have higher rates of skin-whitening than men, and women also sometimes apply skin-whitening products to their children (Counter & Buchanan, 2004; Fokuo, 2009). This paper will investigate why women bleach, and why men and women in Africa and the African Diaspora encourage women to bleach their skin.

The benefits of light skin, although not universal, are widespread around the globe, particularly in countries formerly colonized by Europe or with a significant U.S. presence (Glenn, 2008; Hunter, 2005; Mire, 2001; Rondilla & Spickard, 2007; Telles, 2006). Throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, skin-bleaching is a common practice as people try to acquire lighter skin and the social and economic status that goes with it (Perry, 2006). Although people in some cultures have tried to lighten their skin for centuries, recent data suggests that skin-bleaching is on the rise, particularly among educated, urban women in the Global South (2) (Del Giudice & Yves, 2002; Ntshingla, 2005). What accounts for this recent shift? Glenn (2008) suggests that while historic, European colonial ideologies still have an effect on people, the rise of skin-bleaching around the globe can also be attributed to the constant, current mass-marketing of contemporary images of white beauty. Charles (2009a) suggests that hegemonic representations of white skin are thoroughly rooted in multiple social institutions including education, religion, mass media, and popular culture. Wealthy nations like the United States, Japan, and many European nations create many of the global images of white (or light) beauty (Burke, 1996). In turn, these same nations are also home to the cosmetics companies that produce some of the top-selling skin-bleaching creams, including L'Oreal, Unilever, Shiseido, and others.

Images of white beauty do not simply rely on white women with blonde hair and light eyes to sell products. Images of white beauty sell much more than beauty ideals or fashions for women around the globe. Taken as a whole, images of white beauty sell an entire lifestyle imbued with racial meaning (Burke, 1996; Saraswati, 2010). The lifestyle that is communicated through these ads sells whiteness, modernity, sophistication, beauty, power, and wealth (Leong, 2006; Mahe, Ly & Gounongbe, 2004). The mass-marketing of these images of white beauty and a "white lifestyle" build on the long standing European colonial ideologies that valorize white beauty, European culture, and white aesthetics (Mire, 2001). …

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