Until today I’d assumed “whitewashing” (the practice of bleaching one’s skin to alter its color to a lighter and thus more appealing tone) had all but died in most parts of the modern world.
Holy fuck was I wrong.
This year, British Vogue’s November 2011 cover features none other than Rihanna (aka, the sexiest woman I’ve ever known) posing in one of her classic fierce stances in a blonde wig. When I first saw the cover I was a bit confused why Rihanna looked so different; but, knowing Rihanna’s penchant for unconventional hairstyles, I was initially able to naively overlook her seemingly Marilyn Monroe-inspired do; but a doubletake of the whole ensemble made me realize something a little disconcerting. Rihanna doesn’t just have Marilyn’s hair, but also her eyes, her pose, even her skin. “But Vogue is a fashion magazine, that look is chic, sexy, couture.” Vapid fashion vocabulary aside, it certainly sells, right? Now, I definitely don’t want to deny or minimize the blatant and subliminal sexism the fashion industry is chronically rife with; given fashion magazine’s long history of blatant sexism, it might not be immediately disconcerting to the average reader. But what is disconcerting to anyone who loves the Barbadoan babe like I do is how fucking white Rihanna looks.
As colorlines.com so eloquently put it:
It could be the actual lighting on set, it could be that we’ve gotten used to her wearing a fire engine-red wig, or it could be that someone forget to tell Vogue’s retoucher that Rihanna is in fact black.
Now before you chime in with “what’s so wrong about white skin?” I’d like to point out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, there’s certainly nothing wrong with looking black, either. And call me cracked, but in my mind a few red flags go up when I see an international organization that claims to decide what’s hot and what’s not is photoshopping a world-famous superstar in the name of fashion sense.
Apparently Rihanna hasn’t been the only one “touched-up” with the desaturation tool either. Back in January of this year, ELLE India went with a lighter-tinted version of Aishwarya Rai, the sensational Star of Bollywood making headlines all over the internet and the world, and named by 60 Minutes as the Most Beautiful Woman in the World.
So why does the supposed “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” need any photoshopping? Isn’t she already the pinnacle of perfection? Thankfully, not everyone agrees. Especially Miss Rai, who stated to The Times of India that the former Miss World is “furious with the bleaching blotch-up” and is considering pursuing legal action against the magazine.
But unfortunately Miss Rai isn’t the only celebrity ELLE’s taken to the light room. Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe also miraculously changed colors on the cover of U.S. edition of ELLE back in October of 2010.
And judging from some more photo shoots taken in 2009, L’oréal isn’t above whitewashing either. Just do a double-take of international stars Beyoncé and Freida Pinto. Any red flags yet?
As colorlines.com journalist Julianne Hing points out:
It’s a common, tired practice, and the routine is well-practiced: beauty companies and fashion magazines regularly lighten women’s skin (and darken the faces of black men), pissed off consumers shout back, and sometimes an apology is issued. But come the next fall collection or election season, photo retouchers are inevitably back to trying to make women of color more attractive by lightening them, and darkening the skin of men of color to make them seem more dangerous and suspect. Color, still, is everything.
At some point you have to stop and wonder just what the fuck is going on.
Fortunately, in the case of Aishwarya Rai at least, Change.org has begun a campaign asking the magazine to issue a public apology. However, in light of the situation (no pun intended), why should a campaign be necessary? Shouldn’t ELLE make a statement free of coercion by activist groups, regretting the mistake they knowingly made? I mean they do regret their “mistake,” right? Which brings me around to my point: Why the fuck is this still occurring?
In July in India, Vaseline launched a facebook app that allows the user to lighten their profile pictures to a more “appealing” tone. In 2005 Indian cosmetics mogul Emani began a new product campaign aimed at both men and women’s insecurities, launching their new skin-whitening cream for men called “Fair and Handsome” (the women’s version of course being called “Fair and Lovely”).
Closer to home, a study conducted by Dr. S. Allen Counter of Harvard Medical School in 2003 showed some pretty frightening findings:
96% of over 300 patients in the Southwestern United States that have higher than normal mercury levels were female and all had used skin lightening products; likewise 90% of women tested in clinics in Arizona who were Mexican-American had been using the same products (2).
Women more often try to whiten their skin and as a consequence poison their bodies. These lightening creams such as ‘Crema de Belleza-Manning’, which is made in Mexico, contain mercurous chloride and is easily absorbed through the skin.
As you may or may not know, toxic levels of mercury lead to mercury poisoning, which causes neurological and kidney damage, as well as being a possible cause of psychiatric disorders. It can also cause birth defects. So it’s some pretty serious shit.
Aside from the horrors that survey alone should instill, there’s more where it came from:
Doctors in the UK were confused by symptoms presented by a woman when no reason for her weight gain, stretch or stripe marks and inability to conceive could be found. It was only after further questioning that she admitted to using a skin lightening product (1).
The product, which is illegal in the EU, was clobetasol. This is a cream containing high levels of the steroid corticosteroid. Typically this cream is prescribed for skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis, and is only to be used for up to two weeks at a time.
The UK doctors reported that the woman far exceeded the recommended usage, using two tubes of clobetasol a week for over seven years.
Such products are being increasingly used by people in a number of countries in an attempt to lighten the skin. Older people as well use skin lightening to remove age or liver spots and other skin darkening conditions.
However few people are warned of the dangers of the toxic ingredients which, as well as containing steroids, includes hydroquinone. While hydroquinone is allowed in the US by the FDA, it is banned in Europe because of the potential to cause cancer.
The list of side effects of the steroid corticosteroid is long. The most serious is Cushing’s disease, a malfunction of the adrenal glands leading to an overproduction of cortisol. Other side effects include:
* increased appetite and weight gain
* deposits of fat in chest, face, upper back, and stomach
* slowed healing of wounds
* muscle weakness
* thinning of the skin
Kind of ruins that old saying “beauty is only skin deep,” doesn’t it?
So yeah, there’s that. If it wasn’t already alarming that people are getting whiter on paper, in reality the lightening products themselves have some terrible, toxic side affects. If you’re willing to lighten your skin color for the sake of appearing more attractive, you’re also willing to risk a myriad of other much more devastating skin problems (if psoriasis, eczema, acne, and thin skinning weren’t enough of an indication). In the end, the real cost of lighter skin is often paid in irreparable or even fatal damage to the user’s health, mind, and body—and often the products themselves advertise much better than they actually perform. So why does the fashion industry support this? Why, despite not only obvious health risks and the even more obvious fact that dark skin is beautiful all by itself, is lighter skin encouraged? Maybe it happens because people don’t really know all the serious risks behind skin whitening; maybe fashion companies are simply more concerned with a better quarterly statement than the health of their customers. Or maybe skin lightening is a symptom of the stigma that remains after hundreds of years of oppression, colonialism, and racism latent in our still very segregated and unequal world today. Maybe it’s all true. Whatever way you choose to view it, it’s a grim reality and a heavy price to pay, all for the ‘right look.’ But in our world, it’s the price of beauty.