White is Right?

ISOBEL PRITCHARD looks at the controversial – but lucrative – skin whitening industry.

black and white Michael Jackson skin cream skin whitening sun beds

‘One last push, you can do it…’

And there I was. My mother yelped with exhaustion as the nurses took my wailing self away to be cleaned up. All fell silent. ‘Where is she, where did they take her!’, a note of panic in my mother’s voice. Then a doctor appeared in the doorway, a look of anxiety across his face and small bundle cradled in his arms. As he started to talk my mother squeezed my father’s hand in terror.

‘My oh my, what a VERY WHITE baby’. My parents breathed a sigh of relief.

Not that my mother was scared of giving birth to the baby of a black lover (he would come later), or that they are racist.  It was just that in expecting the worst, they did not see my bright white skin to be too much of a defect. There, on my childbed, they did not look ahead to my future; one of sunburn and blisters; to the peeling nose and to the humiliation of a fake tan gone wrong.

Every year I long for that golden glow and envy my bronzed friends, young and carefree, as I smother my body top to toe with factor 50. On the other side of the coin, however, there are swathes of girls (and boys) who seek to be paler, either due to their own personal feelings, family or societal pressure.

Of course the most famous and shocking example of this is Michael Jackson. The world watched as Jackson gradually transformed himself from a handsome black man to creepy white one. Whilst he claimed that he was suffering from a skin condition, the medication for which caused continued whitening, he could not keep media speculation at bay that he was using skin bleaching cream.  Combining this with the plastic surgery designed to reconstruct his afro features into those of a white man did not help his case.

The desire to be white is entrenched in many cultures. The Geishas of Japan offer a historically interesting example – painted white skin represented beauty, grace and high social status. In India even now the desire for lighter skin is a part of the Hindu caste system. Darker skin is a sign that a woman must labour out doors, whereas a wealthier respectable young lady maintains a purer lighter skin tone. Women are constantly told across Asia that if they get darker no man will want to marry them. The media does not help this situation, air brushing and ‘lightening up’ help to project unrealistic images of ‘beauty’. Shockingly, the whitening cream industry is estimated to be worth around $432 million in India and $7 billion in China.

Of course these treatments vary in their severity to one’s health, from natural solutions like papaya fruit, or creams continuing ingredients such as mercury iodine and hydroquinone – which present cancer risks- to laser treatments. Products banned in Europe for their health risks are often readily available in poorer countries. But this is not just a foreign problem. Creams aimed at Africans, Asians and Arabs have started to infiltrate ethnic media and are even advertised on the London Underground. One only has to Google ‘skin whitening creams’ to understand the extent of the problem. A number of major western cosmetic companies appear to have tapped into this marked, albeit with ‘politically correct’ marketing.

This unrealistic racial ideal seems ludicrous. Especially when you consider the white British population sprawled across the Costa del Sol in pursuit of darker skin tones; or the number of teenage girls frying their young skin encased in coffin-like sun beds.  It begs the question, what is this notion of perfection which we all seem to be seeking? And what is the point when the goal posts seem to vary so much from culture to culture and place to place? Beauty is far from a universal concept.

‘Queen Elizabeth I painted her face with lead to be as white as me, until her skin rotted’ I tell my friend who mocks my positively luminescent legs, which I bare for the first time this summer.  Maybe skin lightening has moved on from this, but the desire to be what you are not definitely has not.