In this post, Professor Steve Garner (Birmingham City University) and Somia R Bibi (Warwick University) discuss their work on lightening practices and explain why this is an area which requires further research.
Skin-lightening (also known as skin-whitening, and skin-bleaching), is a global, multibillion pound industry. Both men and women lighten their skin, yet women are measured most against normative aesthetic standards, and remain the dominant market group for the sale of skin-lighteners. Starting with a British Academy Small Grant we are attempting to analyse skin-lightening practices and highlight the need for research within the UK. We began by trying to establish a base-line, using anonymous surveys, about what products women buy, where they are sourced and how they are used.
Today whilst multiple beauty ideals exist, the idea of fair skin as the most beautiful, particularly among ethnic minority communities, remains widespread. The message that having fairer skin increases one’s chances of having a better job, partner and living conditions remains – spread through advertising and the everyday. For many communities, the emphasis on fair skin, skin colour discrimination and skin-lightening have a long historical legacy that can be traced back to Western colonisation. However, today, such a legacy connects with popular ideas of consumer/individual choice.
Yet, can skin-lightening as a beauty practice and the preference for fair skin be reduced simply to being an individual consumer choice, or a consequence of a wider racist culture? We would argue no. Skin-lightening is a complex set of practices that do not run neatly in a straight line of causal effects. An individual’s consumer choice does not occur in a bubble – it is always framed within a specific socio-cultural environment that cannot be disconnected from history. Moreover, this is not just a question of a black and white binary. Skin-lightening is a multi-dimensional practice with different stories and outcomes between, but also within groups. Studying only the users of products misses this, just as studying adverts or doing a cultural analysis without any input from the users misses the complexity of lived experience.
Often, discussions of skin-lightening focus on illegal products which contain poisonous substances like mercury and hydroquinone, and the damage that can occur from usage, as seen in the image (above).
But unless you are a UK trading standards officer, charged with making sure illegal products are not sold, this is not the most pertinent distinction: legal/illegal is not the same thing as safe/harmful. Legislation changes in relation to political pressures, while the degree to which something is safe or dangerous does not. Even products with ingredients that are currently legal seem likely to reduce the skin’s protective capacity to protect the body against skin cancer-inducing UV rays. Yet this health issue remains the least scrutinised and discussed.
In the next section we will look at some of the findings of our pioneering research.
From our initial findings (using a sample of 114), 42 different brands and 93 products were identified, with a large proportion of products legally sourced from multiple avenues like the high street, online companies and purchasing abroad. However, products were mostly obtained in local shops (54% of respondents), highlighting that products are readily and easily accessible –often found alongside with other skin products (as seen below).
Our research also highlighted the difficulty of the legal/illegal distinction when it comes to skin-lightening usage – although products containing mercury, lead and hydroquinone are illegal, they can be purchased online or brought back from abroad. Indeed, one of the products cited by some respondents in our research was found to contain mercury, and thus removed from local shops in Birmingham, but is readily available online.
Products identified varied from non-permanent mechanisms like foundation several shades lighter than skin-tone, to the long-term application of creams. Thus we ask, is there a need to broaden what we consider constitutes a ‘skin-lightener’ to include products like foundation, when the intent is to lighten skin? This brings us to another point: intent. Whilst research has shown that many women utilise products to lighten their complexion, a small number of respondents in our research used products (in addition to lightening or only) to remove acne marks/dark spots and to have an even complexion. Thus it needs to be recognised that the reasons for usage can be varied.
Skin-lightening is an everyday practice – a part of many people’s daily beauty regimes. Indeed, 66% of respondents used products on a daily basis – with many products also promising to take care of skin more broadly, by for example ‘moisturizing’, ‘illuminating’, ‘softening’, and/or ‘brightening’ skin.
In recent years there seems to have been a discursive shift in how skin-lighteners are marketed with greater use of words like ‘illuminating’, ‘brightening’ and ‘even skin-tone’ suggesting a departure from fair skin being associated with success and beauty. However, is this just another strategic marketing mechanism? Mainstream UK TV does not advertise ‘skin-lighteners’ explicitly, yet UK TV channels and magazines targeting ethic minority women do. Why? Researchers like Margaret Hunter argue that we have an ‘illusion of inclusion’ when it comes to the beauty industry and its advertising, one that continues to facilitate Eurocentric beauty norms. Is this still the case?
Skin-lightening in England is a practice that requires investigation that recognises the complexity of the matter and the need to connect everyday lived experience with wider social and cultural influences.
Professor Steve Garner is based in the Department of Criminology & Sociology at Birmingham City University. His research focuses on racialisation and the ways in which it intersects with nation, class and gender – in different places at different times.
Somia Bibi is a first year PhD student based in the Department of Sociology, at Warwick University. Broadly speaking, her PhD research project entails a cross-cultural analysis of Post-Colonial Whiteness through the lens of ‘race’, beauty and popular culture, with a specific focus on issues encompassing skin colour and skin-lightening for women.