For anyone who tries to downplay how much racism and colorism is still alive and well, sometimes we get a reminder of how deeply ingrained they are — like seeing people willing to put their health at risk to change their skin color. Lightening and whitening creams are booming in sales, despite clear indications that they can be damaging to your health. “Not all products that purport to lighten the skin are illegal, but many creams from outside the EU contain chemicals banned under safety regulations,” the Guardian reports. “These include mercury and hydroquinone – which with prolonged use are linked to poisoning, skin damage and liver and kidney malfunction – and corticosteroids, which in the UK are prescription-only products. Misuse of corticosteroid creams is associated with thinning of the skin, an increased chance of skin cancer and, counterintuitively, darkening of the skin.”
Why would someone take such a risk? Because not only is white privilege everywhere, light-skinned privilege is too. We often point the blame at health and beauty industries, at marketing campaigns — and that blame is totally deserved. But the problem goes so much farther than that. From the fact that light-skinned black women receive shorter prison sentences to lighter skinned people being perceived as more intelligent in interviews, our prejudices run so much deeper than many of us are aware. But in cultures that promote skin lightening, the benefits are considered worth the cost. In fact, many aren’t even given a choice.
— Radhika (@radhikat_) April 23, 2018
It’s not unusual to have family members start pushing skin-lightening creams from a young age — like this woman, who received them from relatives when she was still a teen. “They didn’t come with any information on ingredients or health implications,” Zara, 29, told the Guardian. “The general consensus was that the end goal – lighter skin – was so desired [the products should be used] in blind faith.” From a young age, she was fed a colonial idea of beauty. “I would be pitted against my darker-skinned cousin as the ‘prettier one’, which equipped me with the wrong notions of beauty when entering puberty and the wider world. I recall never wanting to wear white or light colors for fear it would make me appear darker among my peers.” But being lighter skinned wasn’t enough — she was under constant pressure to keep her skin light, with no thought to the health implications or what damaged views it was perpetuating.
We need to take a good look at the environment that’s created this. To remember that, no matter what moves are made toward inclusivity and equality, those white notions of beauty run so deep that people are willing to put their health in danger to attain them. It’s a reminder that we need to be vigilant in our efforts to expand our notions of beauty — and teach all women that they’re included. Our tiny stumbles toward diversity just aren’t enough — we need to stride. And we need to do it soon.