If there’s anything that illustrates the open secret of skin bleaching in communities of color, it’s the Afro hair shop. Alongside aisles of shampoo, hair oils, and extensions, you’ll almost certainly find creams promising fair skin. Occasionally they are tucked away behind the register, but often they are stacked on the shelves in full view.
Dark-skinned women know the scourge of colorism all too well. Despite positive messages from my parents growing up, the Black women I was implicitly told were beautiful — whether in magazines or music videos — looked nothing like me. For many young Black women who came of age on social media, the messages were more explicit. In a recent piece for gal-dem, Tobi Kyeremateng wrote about the competitive degradation of dark-skinned Black women on Twitter and the negative impact it had. Likewise I’ve learned from Indian friends that, thanks to the caste system, skin tone and perceived social class are tightly interwoven; they have told me that it isn’t uncommon to be bullied by lighter-skinned classmates or warned by older relatives not to get dark in the sun.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that for many years a significant number of dark-skinned Black and Asian women felt inclined to lighten their skin. In an article for The Guardian, body-positive influencer Stephanie Yeboah wrote about her “toxic love affair” with bleaching creams in her younger years; on YouTube you’ll find dozens of videos in which women share similar experiences. But a shift is underway. Colorism is still rife, but speaking to friends and other women of color, many of us have begun to sense change. It seems skin lightening is gradually falling out of favor.
By now, the dangers of bleaching products are well-documented, and the risk of doing considerable damage to one’s skin is certainly a factor in putting people off. The main culprit in lightening creams is hydroquinone. Dermatologists can prescribe it in professional settings to treat pigmentation issues, but it is often present in bleaching creams at unregulated and unsafe levels. Hydroquinone’s adverse effects, which include potential long-term damage to vital organs, have led to a ban on traditional bleaching creams in the UK.
Colorism is still rife, but speaking to friends and other women of color, many of us have begun to sense change. It seems skin lightening is gradually falling out of favor.
But in 2020 there is also a growing pride in dark skin, an outcome of the #melanin movement on social media. For Yeboah, scrolling through dark-skin appreciation pages on Tumblr in the early 2010s, which have since evolved into positive Instagram accounts, was part of her journey towards self-love. “There’s such a strong Black presence online that is so strongly tied to our identity,” she says. “There’s this reinforced sense of pride in our Blackness and it’s amazing to see.” Among South Asian women, too, …read more