The recent release of the pictures of performer and musician L’il Kim on Social Media caused a surge of shocked and puzzled responses. Some respondents couldn’t believe it was her, some were baffled as to how it could be possible to look so different and others were offended that a “woman of colour” would hate herself so much to completely change her face beyond any kind of recognition. What is clear is that the subject is still a very raw and difficult one. The image portrays a Caucasian woman with blonde hair that does not resembled the brown skinned woman that we recognise as L’il Kim the singer and artist. What it does raise once more is the debate among “women of colour” about identity, self-worth and why indeed in this day and time there is a desire to adhere to European standards of beauty regardless of where a person is from. Are “women of colour” still dying to be white?
The million-pound skin lightening industry is not specific to African and Caribbean cultures but the media coverage is likely most common because the effects are so dramatic. For a woman who is brown to be photographed as extremely lighter in shade is not something that can be easily dismissed. Raising the alarm in their recent news release, the British Skin Foundation reported that although there are skin lightening creams in the UK that are perfectly legal, they are not always ideal and the illegal creams that are often sold under the counter are so harmful they can cause irreparable damage to the user that includes; increased pigmentation, foetal abnormalities if used during pregnancy, and severe itchy rashes. In high doses, they can also cause psychological damage The report also states:
“It is these products, often obtained from ‘under the counter, that have the potential to be hugely damaging to the user’s health. The use of mercury in cosmetic products has been banned in the EU since 1976, Ingredients such as hydroquinone and high- dose steroids have also been deemed as illegal when used in cosmetics, thanks to the danger they may pose to users who are often unaware of any possible side effects. Devastatingly, some of these side effects may in fact leave the skin in a far worse state than it was to begin with.”
With this in mind, we are led to the questions; who uses these products? Why do they use it? And is the end result of having lighter skin worth the risk of all this damage?
When West African performer Dencia launched her ranged of skin care treatments; Whitenicious by Dencia, a skin care product line suitable for all skin types, from dark skin to light skin, for men and women that claims to “remove dark spots from any part of the body,” The media responded negatively and angry comments were shared across all social media. Even though the description of the products proudly states that “The Whitenicious line has no harsh toxic chemicals known to be harmful to the skin such as hydroquinone, mercury and steroids. Ingredients include fruit extracts, vitamin C & E which all help to naturally heal and clear the skin.” The contrast of her skin tone in the before and after images spoke more to the public than any product description ever could. It is one thing to care for your skin with what is considered “healing products” but it is another thing to promote the use of products that make the skin lighter.
This is an industry that makes money, so there are women with darker skin tones, purchasing products that make them lighter. Maybe there are personal and individual forces at play that act as a reason for wanting to use skin lightening products but for the majority what is troubling is the desire to adhere to a standard of beauty specific to a whole other race and not always compatible to the person’s own one. There was a time when blending into the Western ideal of beauty or Western ideals of behaviour was a necessity that one’s life was dependant upon. We all share the story of Rosa Parkes who when refusing to leave her seat on the bus for a white man was taken away by the police. There was a time when black people had no power and choice but to do as they were told. Today it is a difficult pill to swallow when a person chooses to use harmful chemical to bleach the skin as a choice. As an exception, those with medical conditions have a reason but for the majority contributing to the million-pound industry, it raises the issue of identity and self-worth. What are users of skin lightening creams so afraid of and how do you raise the self-worth of a whole generation?
if you’ve been paying attention, you may already know about the hashtag #blackgirlmagic. For a whole host of reasons, #blackgirlmagic has become a default label for anything that promotes work and achievement of girls and women with an African or Caribbean heritage. It is a direct response to the things that promote Caucasian and western ideals of beauty at the expense of African and Caribbean culture and gives voice and recognition to the identity of African, Caribbean race, culture, beauty and hair. It seeks not to disrespect any other culture but only build and support those who have for so long been on the side-lines of what has been seen as ideal in Western. Summed up nicely by writer Julee Wilson of Huffington Post:
“Black Girl Magic is a term used to illustrate the universal awesomeness of black women. It’s about celebrating anything we deem particularly dope, inspiring, or mind-blowing about ourselves.”
Central to #BlackGirlmagic is the changing attitudes to how women of African and Caribbean heritage present their hair. The move away from using hair relaxers that chemically straightening African kinky textured hair has changed the cosmetic and beauty industry. According to Mintel, sales of hair relaxers dropped by 26% between 2008 – 2013 resulting in new products been born and reborn as a result. The effect on the multi-million-dollar industry is in itself a recognition of the impact that the opinion and behaviours of women of African and Caribbean heritage have, it is a shame that not everyone is yet to realise this enough to encourage self-worth and belief. Something so simple as to allow hair to grow has caused such waves in a whole industry. The growing of hair is so natural that although it is often labelled as a “revolution” could not really be deemed as such but it is more accurately described as a revelation and realisation that the restriction of choice that was once so apparent is no longer there.
Abi the fashion blogger