White girls tan while black girls bleach.
What is the "ideal" skin tone? It doesn't exist. Women continue to try to change their skin tone, many times because they believe that that's what men want them to look like. This quest for ideal beauty is damaging both our skin, our health, and our identities, as white girls tan and black girls bleach.
Note: I'm not going to use terms like "African-American" or "Caucasian" in this article. If this offends you, I'm sorry, but let's keep it simple and keep political correctness out of it. We're talking about color, not ethnicity. There are bigger issues here than vocabulary.
Pale versus Tan in White Women
ABC News did a study to find out whether people were perceived more attractive as pale or tanned. The photoshopped-to-be-tan pictures of people were consistently rated higher than the pale, natural photo of themselves. It's common in Western culture to perceive tanned skin as more attractive.
This is a relatively new cultural ideal for whites. In medieval times, the wealthy nobles of Europe relaxed inside while the peasants toiled away on the fields in the sun, resulting in darker skin. Pale skin meant nobility, tanned skin meant poverty. This changed in modern times when a tan was equated with beaches and vacations, now that luxury means relaxing outside while the lower classes sit in cubicles all day. Supposedly Coco Chanel accidentally got a tan on vacation in the 1920s and started the tanning craze.
Another factor is that women and girls often seek male approval for their skin tone, which irritates my inner feminist beyond belief. Out of curiosity, I googled "why do you want to tan," which turned up some disturbing comments.
The opinions posted online range from refreshing to infuriating. Whatever skin tone you're attracted to is simply what you're attracted to, which is fine! It's when the hate and judgement starts that it gets disturbing. People throw around terms like pasty, deathly, sickly, unhealthy and doughy to describe pale skin.
An honest opinion and a need to be what you want in others. I obviously don't approve of ruining your skin to change its color, but at least this person admits it's just a preference and separates looks from worth.
Here's where it starts to get ugly.
Comparing humans to chickens is far more unattractive than ANY skin tone.
You really believe light skin CAUSES skin cancer? Instead of just being more prone to it? Really? Dark skin can have just as many problems as light skin.
There are many other posts like this, half of which ask both men and women, the other half are specifically targeted towards men. It takes a specific search to find any topics asking girls what they prefer on men.
Here's another response I find disturbing- where women project their opinions and think they know exactly what men want.
This is not the first time I've heard pale skin equated with "looking dead."
Apparently your skin color tells your personality, as well. I am far from frail or stereotypical, sir, and I glow in the dark. Tanning means independence and wildness? Really? Really?
I'm surprised any pale girls have let this one touch them.
Raw dough? Really? Women are being compared to food again? By the way, 'real' tanning DOES make your skin leathery.
Luckily it's not all bad- there are a few responses that have kept me from getting ridiculously enraged. At least some women realize that this conversation is superficial.
This cultural mindset that you have to get a "healthy tan" in order to be attractive is damaging to both our skin (there's no such thing as a "healthy" tan unless it was achieved with self tanning products) and our self esteem. Elle Magazine did an article asking readers to vote which they preferred, and nearly all of the celebrities were voted as looking 'better' with a tan.
There was no companion article to rate male celebrities' skin tones.
Light Skinned versus Dark Skinned in Africa
Black women all over the globe are bleaching their skin in order to be lighter, fairer, whiter.
This is a huge problem in Africa. Despite these products being officially banned in many countries, marketplaces are still full of skin lightening creams, many of which contain mercury and very high doses of hydroquinone.
Dencia, an African pop star, promotes a product intended for removing dark spots, but promotes it with photos of herself many shades lighter and "whiter" than she actually is. She denies that she believes being lighter is prettier. In a flurry of words she says, "White means pure, [...] a lot of people don't feel beautiful, [...] don't feel clean, with dark spots. [...] I say 7 Day Fast Acting Dark Spot Remover, it doesn't say bleaching your whole skin. [...] You people need to read, it's called reading comprehension."
She denies she is sending any message about beauty. "I'm an adult, if I lighten my skin, it's my choice." The reporter tries several times to draw attention to the huge difference in overall skin tone in this ad, not just dark spots, and an agitated Dencia simply talks over her, defending the product and its name, despite women being verbal towards her about feeling inferior because of their darker skin tone. "I don't care about her story."
The Voice in the UK also followed this story and had interesting insights.
"A recent study from San Francisco State University found that high-flying African Americans are viewed as being several shades lighter than they really are. The study concluded that people’s memories comply with stereotypical ideas that associate “whiter" skin with favourable characteristics.
Psychologists say there are underlying reasons why people bleach their skin - but low self-esteem and, to some degree self-hate, are common threads.
A 2013 study by the University of Cape Town found that one woman in three in South Africa bleaches her skin. Most said they used skin-lighteners because they wanted white skin.
But the problem of associating lighter skin with more positive personal attributes appears to affect black and Asian communities globally." - (source)
The dangers of whitening are great. These products initially make skin look better, but over time cause serious damage. The documentary below shows the dangers of bleaching.
Brown versus Black in Jamaica
This is not limited to the African continent. In Jamaica, a dark skinned women explains it bluntly at 3:35: "I think it comes from the slaves. When you are brown, you stay in the house. When you are black, you are out in the field working. I think it's from that time coming down... [...] that thing where the white man always takes the brown girl, brings her into the house, and gets her pregnant."
The narrator explains this is still a prejudice. "It appears nothing has changed. Brown skinned workers still enjoy privileges of job opportunities over their black skinned counterparts."
At 5:24 a woman looks disgusted as she asks, "Where do all these bleaching creams come from? Have you realized the chemicals in it? You ever think about it?" She leans into the microphone. "Check the ratio. Yeah, get real with yourself... Black is beauty, you are beautiful inside, it's not all on the outside, It's what is in you that is beautiful."
Light versus Dark in Black Celebrities
This quest for the unobtainable perfect skin tone is also huge in fashion and the entertainment industries. Dark skinned models are a rarity.
Black celebrities also show the signs of bleaching their skin to be lighter.
Rihanna's natural skin tone is gorgeous, and is the color many white women are constantly, desperately striving to achieve with sun exposure, tanning beds, sprays, lotions and potions.
However, even the naturally light skinned black women in America face abuse about their skin tone! There is a short clip from an episode of Oprah that features several light skinned black women explaining they get harassed by dark skinned people for "not black enough" and "your light skin means you think you're pretty." No matter what color they are, someone has a problem with it.
Fair versus Dark in Asia
The white makeup of geishas reflects the centuries old cultural desire for paper white, flawless skin. Women in China paint their bodies completely white for their traditional geisha dances. Skin care in all of Asia contains lighteners, and the desire to be as light as possible is very common.
This is also a huge problem in India. Indian women, who suffer greatly from patriarchy, are told they will never marry because their skin is too dark. The documentary below is a sobering look at the way Indians view fairness; as beauty, as worth, as wealth, as marriageability. These views are parallel in all Eastern cultures who value light skin over dark skin, all over Asia. These views are also common in Hispanic and South American cultures as well.
The synonyms people use in this video for "dark" are dusky, subdued, even black, despite the skin tones they describe this way being lovely mocha tones, and actually falling in the medium spectrum of global color.
At 5:58, a woman shows a photograph taken to show potential grooms, and explains how every step was taken to make her appear several shades lighter, including strong lighting, clothing color choice, and heavy powder. She laughs a little, almost disbelievingly, as she says "...the skin tone does not look like mine." She talks about how people have spoken to her about her skin tone. "You are very black so you will not get married, and even if you do get married you will have a horrible husband." She has a beautiful light brown skin tone that many American women with the exact same tone have complained to me that they felt "pasty" and "needed to get some color."
Older housewives, talking about marriageability, say "Let me tell you... no matter what she looks like, if she is fair, it is enough." The narrator Dia asks, "Who prefers fair girls? The boys?" They respond, "No, no, the boys' mothers! The mothers, fathers, relatives... and yes, even the boy." Later in the video they explain that the same standards applied when they married. "They looked at me and said, 'our son is fair, we are looking for a fair girl...' then, 'our son is dark, we want a fair girl'."
The Indian man who started the company Fair & Lovely says, "Yes, I like fair girls." When pressed a little, he also likes dark girls, but "I like fair girls more." His entire family uses the product, including his ten year old daughter, who started using it at the age of six.
When a male Indian beautician is asked "how big" fairness is, he responds emphatically, "Huge!" He recommends the dark skinned narrator get a bleaching facial. In the middle of this treatment, Dia says into the camera with a deadpan look on her face, "I think it's burning my eyes and nose off, but anything to become fairer, right? Fair is the best." She is visibly uncomfortable and you can see a range of emotions going through her. She stares into the camera for a few seconds and then rolls her eyes.
An Indian commercial plays. A family drama unfolds over a father having another coffee. The mother says "you are drinking away the savings for your daughter," and the father replies, "If only we had a son." The stunningly beautiful dark skinned daughter hears this, cries on her bed, sees a wanted ad for an Air Hostess, and then the scene cuts to her applying Fair and Lovely. "Fair and Lovely's new four step action formula can change your world. [...] It makes your inner light skin show." The woman, now several shades lighter, is shown as happy, getting a job, getting attention from a handsome pilot, and then taking her father out, where he asks sarcastically, "Can I get a coffee?" and the daughter and her mother laugh to each other. Because now that she's fair, she's successful, and she's actually worth something to her father. The announcer ends with "The new Fair and Lovely changes your face and your fate."
Recently this obsession with fairness has expanded to men as well. Fair and Lovely added a new product to their line in 2005, Fair and Handsome, which is the first fairness cream marketed towards men. A small part of me feels a twisted sense of satisfaction that finally men in India are feeling a small part of the ridiculously high standards of beauty and worth that they have imposed on Indian women for centuries. Most of me, however, finds it truly depressing that now all of India has become obsessed with bleaching their skin with harmful products to achieve fairness.
A ten year old boy who uses Fair & Handsome talks about being singled out in school for his darker skin color. His classmates are fair, he says, and have already started bleaching themselves. "Whoever has money does it." Dia asks him, "How fair do you want to become?" The boy points to the cameraman, who has an American accent but is never shown, and smiles. "As fair as him." When Dia tells him, "Where he stays, they make fun of him. So he wants to be like you, and you want to be like him." He looks sad for a moment, but it's obvious he still desperately wants to be lighter. "I put on Fair and Handsome and then powder, but it still does not work. Then I go to school and it disappears." One of the woman in this group explains, "He sweats a lot."
A very fair skinned Indian actress condescendingly asks "Why, why are you making it an issue?" She uses the words fairness and beautiful as synonyms, but says that the product Fair and Lovely "is only bought by domestic help, those kinds of products... [...] I would never want to do something so stupid." It seems that she sees herself as fair royalty entertaining the dark masses, and it's stupid for dark skinned people to want to be lighter, despite her own belief that lighter is prettier. At 19:51, she compares fair skinned women to fresh flowers. "If you are buying a set of flowers, you look for fresh ones." The dark skinned Dia responds, "You began with fresh is fair, so what would you say dark is?" After a very awkward 10 second pause, the screen cuts to the next segment. Apparently the actress asked them to leave and would not answer any more questions.
Some products, generally referred to as "brighteners," use safe, natural extracts to lighten discoloration from sun damage. Ingredients like Vitamin C and antioxidants repair sun exposure, acne scarring, and free radical damage. Generally brightening products do not lighten the base skin tone, just repair damage that has already been done and promotes the health of the skin.
Other products, "lighteners," contain tyrosinase inhibitors, which are enzymes that keep melanin from forming. Hydroquinone, which is a very controversial ingredient, is banned in several countries but allowed in other countries in varying strengths. Opinions on this ingredient vary widely, from accusations that it causes cancer to arguments that it's an antioxidant and actually prevents cancer. Hydroquinone is a topic all to itself.
Many of these bleaching creams use hydroquinone in combination with mercury and other toxic ingredients. These overpowered creams do lighten the skin, but the risks are high.
Hypopigmentation, as seen above, is a huge risk, especially in countries where there are no standards for quality control or testing these products. When the melanocytes of your skin die, white spots or patches form. Hypopigmentation is very difficult to treat.
Not only do these products cause mercury poisoning, kidney and liver problems, and possibly cancer, but the process of removing melanin from your skin means you are more prone to sun damage, including burns, hyperpigmentation, and skin cancer. Using a bleaching product without proper sun protection means the skin is going to create even more dark spots.
Why are we doing this to ourselves?
Is it racism? It it unrealistic standards of beauty for women, and now men as well? Is it patriarchy? Is it sexism? Is it a focus on the external instead of internal?
It's everything rolled into one. The actual ideal skin color for everyone is the skin color they were born with, before they spent a minute in the sun, before they applied an ounce of bleaching cream, before any laser to remove pigment. Babies always have beautiful skin. The best skin tone for you is your skin in its healthiest state. Trying to change so that others will view you differently, or so they will desire you, does not benefit you in the slightest. It perpetuates this detrimental idea that other people can define your worth for you. If you do decide to change your skin tone, do it safely, with self tanning products or with safe brightening products.
Beauty comes in all colors. Different people are attracted towards different colors.
These women are both equally, stunningly beautiful.
Instead of striving to be something you think someone wants, find someone who wants exactly what you already are. Your beauty has nothing to do with your color, and everything to do with your health, your personality, and your confidence.
What are your experiences with your skin tone? Share your own story in the comments below.
Please share. The women of the world need to see themselves as beautiful, no matter what color.