Culture //

Light ≠ Right

Millie Roberts asks, does it matter if you’re black or white?

Art: Brigitte Samaha

HYDROQUINONE: A chemical agent used to develop photographs. Requires a dermatological prescription in Australia and is completely banned in Europe.

MERCURY: When absorbed through the skin, this toxic metal element can build up and slowly poison the body. It is also known for causing birth abnormalities.

STEROIDS: Restricts the flow of blood to the skin. Can encourage the body to stop producing cortisol, otherwise known as the hormone that deals with stress levels.

These are common ingredients used in many creams, soaps, lotions and serums topically applied onto the faces and bodies of millions of people worldwide. While notoriously popular in Asian countries, they are also bought by many black men and women in Africa, America, South America and Australia. In Kenya, it’s called ‘kutoa tint’, Ghana, ‘nensoebenis’, South Africa, ‘ukutsheyisa’ and in Senegal, ‘caco’ – all lingo for the act of applying bleaching agents to the skin to physically lighten the appearance of melanin. Despite being marketed to treat hyperpigmentation, freckles and scarring, skin bleaching products are increasingly being used to whiten skin tones altogether.

The most concerning thing is that the long-term effects of skin bleaching products are still unknown. Prolonged use has so far been associated with body odour, swelling, infections, as well as kidney and liver failure, and it has been proven that these chemicals repeatedly penetrating the epidermis lead to sun sensitivity, and in extreme cases, skin cancer. While more natural ingredients are increasingly being used in these products, their risky alternatives are often masked under a multitude of different names or are not fully disclosed on the packaging. The desired effects are not immediate and can only be sustained by using the skin bleachers indefinitely to avoid re-pigmentation.

In June, American rapper Azealia Banks was heavily criticised for using controversial bleaching cream ‘Whitenicious’. She claimed that it was no different to cosmetic surgery or wearing a weave – just another form of “assimilation” in a Western world. Back in Australia, however, it is just as easy to find similar products. Sephora advertises high-end versions for around the $100 mark.

At an International importer near the University, I ask whether there is high demand in Sydney for the products that take up nearly four rows of their stock shelves. The sales assistant nods, eyes widening as if it is an obvious question. Most of the packaging of the items sold in her store are all brightly coloured and don buzzwords such as ‘milky’ and ‘pretty’. One brand is aptly named ‘Fair and White’ and has the tagline “so white!”. Some of the models on the front are photoshopped to appear lighter, while others appear ethnically biracial. Both of these marketing choices are aimed at consumers with far darker skin than the girls chosen to advertise them.

On the skin colour spectrum, it is seen as more disadvantageous to be darker in most Western countries, where discrimination based on racial complexion is rampant. When a person resorts to tampering with their natural skin colour, they do so for reasons beyond personal insecurity and medical necessity: they use them for perceived gains romantically, economically, aesthetically and socially. As Azealia Banks pointed out when justifying her beauty choices, there is a difference between ‘bleaching’ and ‘whitening’ products. However, the accessibility of these pots, tubs and bottles provide a gateway from small touch-ups to full-blown identity erasure that perpetuates that ‘light is right’.

When it is easier to alter your skin tone than change the way you are treated because of it, skin bleaching is perceived to offer the key to happiness and success. But with the damaging health risks and racist undertones that come with it, what is the true cost?