Is skin whitening any different to hair straightening?

Is skin whitening any different to hair straightening?

What would you say if I challenged you not to wear any make up to work tomorrow? Or to skip your next visit to the beauticians to get your eyebrows threaded? Would you be able to go completely au natural with your looks and be comfortable with it?

I’m guessing for the majority of women the answer would be no. For most of us, attending to beauty routines are as normal as changing clothes in the morning- you’d obviously not leave the house in your pyjamas so it makes sense that you’d put on makeup, style your hair, have your eyebrows threaded; whatever it might be for you and however simple or extensive your routine might be.

Personally I could probably skip wearing makeup for a day or too, but I couldn’t live without my hair dryer and various hair straightening products. I’ve been straightening my hair for more than 15 years. Over this time, I’ve probably spent hundreds of pounds investing in products and haircuts, and countless hours trying to get the frizz out of my hair. My straight, flattened hair is not my natural hair type believe me! On one very rare occasion that I did let my hair dry naturally- no products, no straightening, someone commented that it made me look ‘more ethnic’.

And that’s the thing isn’t it: I’ve spent all these years getting rid of that ‘ethnic look’ and conforming to a model of beauty that says straight, flat hair is the acceptable image of beauty. Even beach curls have to be silky smooth and styled, rather than the random mop of frizz/waves/curls that my natural hair type displays.

Researcher and policy advisor Debbie Weekes-Barnard identified a “hierarchy of beauty” that women of different ethnicities conform to:

“…..there (are) things at work societally which place all women, but certainly black women, on a hierarchy of beauty.

…..the hierarchy of beauty for black women is different from the hierarchy for white women. For white women, it’s about size and shape [thinness] but for black women it’s all of those things, but also the shape of one’s nose and lips, the texture of your hair and all those other things which are bound up within how ‘womanly’ or not you look.”

I’d love to say that that hierarchy doesn’t apply to me, and that I don’t conform to it. But as women we are constantly being judged by the way we look, and because of that we end up conforming to these frankly, Western standards of beauty.

We applaud Bollywood actresses like Aishwaraya Rai Buchchan and Frieda Pinto who have crossed over to mainstream appeal and appeared in Western films and ad campaigns, because we finally see a brown face in the media. But the fact is, they too have been modified to fit a Western mould of beauty before they could get there. Their appearances are very similar to any other white Western celebrity- only they’re a few shades darker.

Colourism in particular- judging others for how dark skinned they are, is ingrained in the Asian culture. We all know an auntiji or two who comments on how dark so and so is and how they will never get married because of it. In India it’s even said to affect your job prospects. Skin whitening and bleaching products are big business globally. Did you know there’s even a vaginal whitening product now available? Last July, Vaseline launched a Facebook app in India that enabled users to make their skin whiter in their profile pictures. The app was to promote their new range of skin-lightening creams for men.

Colourism is abhorrent. The fact that manufacturers promote their products by perpetuating the whole ‘fair is beautiful’ myth is just infuriating. But somewhere along the line, our culture bought into it, too. Whilst some argue that colourism is different to racism- racism being bound up with other factors such as ethnicity as well as skin colour, doesn’t make colourism any better or less damaging. And what’s more, users of skin-lightening products are judged for conforming to the ideal that fair is beautiful and they’re shamed for not accepting their God-given looks.

But then I’ve never accepted my frizzy, wavy hair. I conform to the model that says silky straight hair is beautiful. I also thread my eyebrows, bleach excess facial hair, shave my legs, wear foundation to even out my skin tone, a lightening concealer to eliminate dark circles under my eyes, blusher to contour my cheeks, mascara to thicken my lashes, lipstick to plump my lips…what else….? I do all of these things to alter my appearance and appear more womanly, ultimately trying to rank higher on that hierarchy of beauty. And yet I judge women who want to move themselves up this hierarchy simply because they were born with dark skin and resort to skin-whitening.

I couldn’t put it more simply than this: in 2010 Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel came under fire after apparently lightening his skin. He defended his use of “cake soap”-a skin whitening product, saying:

“I feel comfortable with black people lightening their skin. It’s tantamount to white people getting a suntan. When black women stop straightening their hair and wearing wigs and weaves, when white women stop getting lip and butt injections and implants … then I’ll stop using the ‘cake soap’ and we’ll all live naturally ever after.”

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