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Fashion in American Popular Culture

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Over the past few years, I have noticed something about the face of black beauty. Somewhere along the way, it has collapsed into one singular shade, or more aptly stated, a light brown hue. When did this happen? We all know that beauty is subjective, right? Irrespective of our race, social class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality, we all have a different conception of what it means to be beautiful, and what constitutes beauty, right? But after a lifetime of seeing one kind of representation, can it still be said that beauty is subjective?

It is quite clear what is beautiful in Western culture – thinness, straight hair, large breasts and fair skin. There is this widely held misconception that black women, unlike other women, are less insecure about their bodies, but when it comes to hair and skin, our issues are just as deep, if not deeper. Hair alteration has been a contested practice for generations, but skin bleaching, on the other hand, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The first time I heard about this practice was back in the ‘90s. Dancehall reggae singer Nardo Ranks had a song called “Dem a Bleach” in which he sang:

Dem a bleach dem a bleach out dem skin
Skin dem a bleach for look like a brownin’
Gyal mi honor yu
And yu na bleach out yu skin
Yu na use na chemical fe look like a brownin’

The term “brownin’” literally refers to someone who has used a chemical to lighten or brown their skin so that the person appears to be more mixed race. I was a mere teenager back then and truly had no concept of the social-cultural critique he was making about the practice of skin bleaching; today, I am all too familiar and disturbed by it.

In 2007, CNN reported that a beauty and cosmetics shop in Brixton, England, was raided by police, and skin bleaching products were confiscated. Most of these products contained a chemical called hydroquinone, which is banned for sale in the UK. The United States Food and Drug Administration have also recently suggested that hydroquinone poses a potential cancer risk in humans. But the practice continues.

For example, shortly after the Haitian disaster, a friend forwarded me an article that claimed the Thailand government donated 50,000 bottles of whitening skin cream to the earthquake-stricken country. The piece also claimed that the dark skin of the Haitians is one reason they’re living in poverty; if they had lighter skin, they would be more successful. While this email appears to be a hoax, it speaks to a global concern with dehumanizing dark skin. My intent here is to illuminate the covert ways the aforementioned narrative is disseminated within pop culture.

Black women are inundated with images of beauty, the faces of which are the likes of Beyonce, Thandie Newton, Queen Latifah, Halle Barry, Tyra Banks, to name a few. These women are the representative figures of contemporary black womanhood, so we not only see them on beauty magazines and make-up commercials, but in film and television. Don’t get me wrong, I love all these women and appreciate their contributions; however, the reality is, they all have a similar light skinned complexion. There appears to be no arena for a dark skinned woman to shine. They do, of course, exist – Naomi Campbell is one, but she only makes headlines nowadays when she does something coded as “crazy.” The image of the light skinned black beauty is ubiquitous. Even hip-hop videos overwhelmingly favor the light skinned vixen.

In the documentary Obsession Complexion, Joy Daily spoke to dancers and models of all shades regarding what she considers to be hip-hop’s obsession with light skinned women. And while some of the women featured in the film argued that it’s not about who is beautiful or who has lighter skin, but more about one’s “personality,” in reality, there are more serious social-psychological negotiations at play.

In 2007, for instance, a Detroit DJ was roundly criticized for offering free admission to light skinned women to attend a party at a local nightclub. In 2008, controversy arose over a hair color ad featuring Beyonce, who, in the opinion of many, appeared to have a lighter skin tone. The allegations were not that Beyonce was lightening her skin, but that the company had digitally whitewashed the singer’s skin. While these were mere allegations, just last year, a French court found L’Oreal guilty of a racist recruitment policy for its shampoo sales teams, which apparently is all white. My contention is not to single out L’Oreal or Beyonce but to problematize this idea that in the case of black women, skin bleaching is an attempt to be white. On the contrary, I think it has more to do with the symbolic representation of mixed race or biracial women as the epitome of black beauty.

Importantly, I don’t want to pathologize black women alone in terms of skin bleaching. In her study, Amina Mire found that white and Asian (Japanese, Korean, Chinese) women also bleach their skins with products often coded as “evening out” one’s complexion. A lot of these products come in the form of soap, lotion, face wash, or a scrub, and are marketed as a form of beauty enhancement. The fact is quite simple: skin bleaching products do pose serious health risks. If we believe that beauty hurts, why are women (literally) dying for it?

Unanimously, there is a perception out there that not only is lighter skin prettier but obtaining it will translate into personal success and increase one’s sexual desirability. We cannot forget how much of this is situated within the realm of heteronormativity and the desire to please men by soliciting the male gaze. Because structures of power and domination continue to be controlled by men, a lot of the extreme measures women take to be “beautiful” – plastic surgery, dieting, make-up, and skin bleaching – are wrapped up in a delicate web of male oppression. Lest we forget, men are often controlling the images women receive regarding what is beautiful and who is not.

Last year, a rumor arose that the talent management company for Ciroc, the French vodka company for which P Diddy endorses, was accused of restricting their casting calls to only white, Hispanic, or light skinned black women. Whether or not this is true, as the Obsession Complexion documentary highlights, most of the women in hip-hop or related visual industries are light skinned and if there is a dark skinned woman, she is usually a token and not the object of legitimate desire, but the sexually lascivious fruit. The rapper Wale’ latest song, “Pretty Girls” is another example of this preference for light skinned women. While in the lyrics of the song he says: “Asian, black, Caucasian I’m blazin’,” the vast majority of the vixens in the video are Asian, Hispanic, white, and light skinned black women. The message here is clear: the prettiest and fairest of them all do not come in dark shades.

The island of Jamaica has long had a problem with skin lightening. It is of no surprise, then, that dancehall reggae songs frequently comment on the skin tone of women as either “brownins” or not. In a 2009 study of Jamaica, Christopher Charles found that dark skin is continually positioned and represented as ugly, unattractive, and socially undesirable, all of which are embedded in the larger cultural context of colonialism, and a cultural milieu comprised of negative images and interaction with societal institutions such as the media and popular culture, that have created the belief that light skin is superior to dark skin. America is no different. From hip-hop to R&B, film to television, the only positive image of black beauty is a light skinned one.

When you have a uniformed iconography of black womanhood – light skin and straight hair – women who do not fit this standard are inevitably going to seek out measures to reduce the discrepancy. University of Leeds scholar Shirley Tate raises two important questions: Why is there such a continuing emphasis on black women bleaching their skin as the continuation of a “racist practice”? Would we also say that white women bleaching or tanning their skin are also engaging in a “racist practice”?

The racial classification of black bodies during slavery, when mixed race women whether slave or free were viewed as being more sexually desirable because of their approximation to European facial features, hair texture, and lightness of skin color, coupled with the iconography of contemporary popular culture must be underscored as reasons why the skin lightening practices of black women is different to those of white and Asian women. We know that meanings of the self or identities that exist in society are because of the representations that circulation within the culture. Identity by nature is dual because it is elaborated internally, having been constructed externally. People internalize identity construction, which manifests itself in the appearance of social actions.

Without question, white women are inundated with images of beauty that are impossible for most to attain: sheets of blonde hair, waif-thin bodies, large breasts, no cellulite, small but round features, high cheekbones. No one beauty is tabula rasa. Actress Farrah Fawcett, for instance, with her long blonde hair, thin frame, large breasts, and fair (but tanned) skin, still stands as a form of white female iconography. As such, all female beauty is a construction based on historical, cultural, social, political, and economic tensions and regulations.

We need to question the image of the light skinned black woman, which has come to stand for, and be representative of, black womanhood. There is some truth to the claim that mixed raced women are imbricated in a tactic of invisibility where the lack of belonging to a racial binary signifies a new form of subjectivity; however I want to suggest that this tactic of color blindness is creating a different problem.

To simply invert one beauty standard (light skin is beautiful, dark skin is ugly) with another (dark skin is beautiful, light skin is ugly) does not solve the problem of racial and gender oppression. It would not help anyone if suddenly P Diddy cast all dark skinned women in his videos and rejected light skinned women. Instead, we need to contend with the erasure of black subjectivity in all its hues, pigments, and colors, and consider the possibility of a black womanhood that does not perpetuate historical binaries or universalize through regulation what it means to be both black and female.

Stuart Hall talks about a process of cultural change in which cultural practice becomes translated, becomes different from what it once was because of the impact of new spaces and times. When we see black beauty as something that can evolve and become different from what it once was then we can move towards a process of change without contemplation of an “authentic” or single iconography of the black female body.

To be clear, I do not believe black (Asian and Indian) women want to be white; rather, I am suggesting it is about a lack of self love. The lightening of the skin is not about a glorification of the other – in this case whiteness – but the abjection of blackness. Skin bleachers are not looking to subsume into whiteness; they seek to diminish the perceived liability of blackness. That is what makes the practice so disturbing. What we need right now is a dialogue; we need to start a movement to question the patriarchy that is at the center of all of these practices. In order to change these beliefs about skin color, and finally break from the mental hold of slavery and oppression the work of this generation has to be about change. We must believe that black is BEAUTIFUL, no matter where you live, no matter what race you are, and no matter if you’re Alex Wek or Beyonce. The revolution must start in our minds, not in popular culture.

May 2010

From guest contributor Cheryl Thompson

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