Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Skin-Bleaching: Poison, Beauty, Power and the Politics of the Colour Line

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Skin-Bleaching: Poison, Beauty, Power and the Politics of the Colour Line

Article excerpt

In this paper I explore the practice of skin-bleaching whereby women (and some men) use highly dangerous chemical agents on their skin in order to achieve a lighter skin tone. Using medical literature from medical and dermatology journals, fashion magazine ads, website ads for skin-bleaching products, and critical literature on race, gender and representation, I seek to make sense of the health, social, political and cultural implications of this destructive practice.

Dans cet article, je remets en question la pratique du blanchiment de la peau selon laquelle, a l'aide de produits chimiques excessivement dangereux, les femmes (ainsi que certains hommes), parviennent a eclaircir leur peau. En me basant sur de la documentation provenant de revues medicales et dermatologiques, de publicites relevees de magazines de mo de ou de sites web, et sur de la documentation importante sur le racisme, le genre et la representation, je tente de comprendre l'ampleur des repercussions sociales, politiques et culturelles de cette pratique destructrice.


The practice of skin-bleaching is the focus of this paper, a practice whereby women (and some men) use various chemical agents on their skin to achieve a lighter skin tone, or even to appear white if possible. Skin- bleaching, I argue, is linked to the ways in which whiteness historically has come to be viewed as the paradigm, the standard, the universal human body, while blackness is seen as deviant, degenerate and ugly. By presenting a variety of medical articles, I will show that the medical communities in the west and elsewhere have failed to intervene in the production and use of these highly poisonous chemicals. Western medical authorities consider skin-bleaching exclusively as a black problem and therefore give this destructive practice a low priority. I will also show that the enterprise of skin-bleaching is a big business which brings together members of the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry, the chemical industry into a global nexus of producers, distributors and dispensers of poisonous skin-bleaching chemicals for the purpose of making a profit.(f.1) Finally, I argue that skin-bleaching is a particular, albeit very destructive, attempt to gain respectability and social mobility within the white supremacist capitalist social and political order. Hence, everyone -- "white," "black," or "people of colour," -- is implicated and affected, often in complex ways, by the politics of whiteness. Consequently, I situate the practice of skin-bleaching in the social and political context of white supremacist culture, a cultural hegemony that is global, and whose dominating impact is felt world wide.

Race, Representation, and the Construction of the white Body

Throughout western colonial history, the white body has been represented by the dominant culture as the most virtuous and aesthetically most appealing, while the dark body has been represented as the least virtuous and aesthetically least appealing. Colonial representations of race construct both whiteness and blackness, and the concomitant sets of values, dispositions and attitudes associated with such discursively produced racial identities and racialized bodies. In this article, I combine works of critical scholars of race and representations with the medical literature in order to make sense of this destructive practice.

Skin-bleaching is a practice that leads to a great deal of pain and shame, and, in some cases, causes irreversible bodily damage to those who practise it.(f.2) Discussion of skin-bleaching must be situated within the wider sociocultural, sociopolitical and socioeconomic conditions within which it takes place. Consequently, I take a critical look at this issue from a cross-disciplinary perspective. Skin-bleaching as a practice indicates a desire to be white, or to be less dark-skinned. As bell hooks has succinctly pointed out, hating blackness is a clear manifestation of a white supremacist ethos (hooks, 1992, p. …

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