Is White Right? Challenging the Eurocentric Standard of Beauty

Photo Courtesy of TheYBF website

Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel has angered folks with the recent news that he will release a line of cosmetic products that include skin brightening creams. The products, targeted towards men, have outraged audiences who believe that it promotes self-hatred. Kartel is no stranger to this conversation. The artist fought against criticism earlier this year when it was revealed that he had lightened his own skin.

In a January 2011 interview with Vibe magazine, Kartel said:

“I’m my own man, and as such I do my own thing. When black women stop straightening their hair and wearing wigs and weaves, when white women stop getting lip and butt injections and implants, when bald men stop getting hair transplants, and when people stop getting nose jobs and cosmetic surgery then I’ll stop using the ‘cakesoap’ and we’ll all live naturally ever after. Until then F**k you all.” (source)

The ‘cake soap’ (also known as ‘blue’ soap) that Kartel refers to is a bleach-containing soap that is traditionally used to clean laundry. However, it is believed that many people in Jamaica and abroad use the soap to lighten their skin. The controversy surrounding the soap has caused the manufacturer to refute any allegations that the product contains ingredients that alter pigmentation.

In an article for Huffington Post, David McFadden reports that ingredients in bleaching creams can have significant consequences and governments around the world have implemented regulations.

“Most Jamaican bleachers use over-the-counter creams, many of them knockoffs imported from West Africa. Long-term use of one of the ingredients, hydroquinone, has long been linked to a disfiguring condition called ochronosis that causes a splotchy darkening of the skin. Doctors say abuse of bleaching lotions has also left a web of stretch marks across some Jamaicans’ faces.

In Japan, the European Union, and Australia, hydroquinone has been removed from over-the-counter skin products and substituted with other chemicals due to concerns about health risks. In the U.S., over-the-counter creams containing up to 2 percent hydroquinone are recognized as safe and effective by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A proposed ban by the FDA in 2006 fizzled.” (source)

Photo Courtesy of the Guardian website

While health is a major concern in the debate over skin bleaching, Vanessa Walters tackles the historical impact this practice has had on many communities of color.

“”Bleaching” is a huge industry in developing countries. This legacy of slavery or colonization, where lighter-skinned or white people were given visible privileges over hundreds of years has resulted in societies where the lighter you are, the higher your status socially and economically. In India, women strive to achieve the “wheat” colour much-requested on Asian dating websites. In the Caribbean, light skin is also highly desired while in African countries even seemingly minor variations in skin tone can contribute to ethnic conflict.” (source)

For centuries, society has maintained a eurocentric standard of beauty. As a result, many communities of color (individually and collectively) feel the pressures to meet or uphold this standard. This “white is right” mentality has made it challenging for people of color to celebrate cultural beauty and identity. While I do not know the motivation for why Kartel decided to lighten his skin, I will say that skin bleaching is an unfortunate result of this standard. When “white” is viewed as the only desirable, it leaves those falling short looking for ways to seek value.

Eurocentrism, as a marker of beauty, is being reinforced in the 21st century through media. Celebrities are often airbrushed in images to recreate this look of perfection. One of the most prominent controversies surrounding airbrushing is the 2008 L’Oreal Paris ad with Beyonce. Advertisements are not alone, because music lyrics and videos also reinforce the concept of the ideal woman and man.

In my lifetime, I have seen and experienced the effects of this standard on my community. As a young African American woman, I have witnessed modern-day arguments over the desirability of skin color, similar to that of the “brown paper bag test.” I have also dealt with the politics surrounding hair. Many African American men and women are faced with deciding whether wearing their hair in a natural style (afro, braids, or dreadlocks) will prevent them from getting a corporate job. The backlash surrounding Kartel and his cosmetic line is just the tip of the iceberg. The issues surrounding body image and beauty are more than skin deep. The problems we face in this area cross racial and cultural barriers, and it is going to take serious progression, education, and tolerance to rid our society of these divisive benchmarks.

Please share your thoughts…

What do you think about skin bleaching? How do cosmetic surgeries, tanning, and the chemical processing of hair compare to skin bleaching? Should we work to change the standard of beauty? What standards of beauty have you felt pressured to meet?

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About kaileylatham11

Alumna of The Ohio State Univ., Graduate Student at Arizona State Univ., and an aspiring journalist.
This entry was posted in Body Image and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Is White Right? Challenging the Eurocentric Standard of Beauty

  1. samanthabare says:

    I feel like no matter what color you are, you’re going to want something different. My half-siblings have heavy Irish blood and they hate their freckles and pale skin. They’ve tried some means of darkening their skin but nothing permanent (red hair and dark skin would look odd anyways).

    Personally, I don’t like my “winter skin” and sometimes I’ll use tinted lotions until I can get into the sun again. Would I permanently darken my skin? That’s too risky/dangerous for my tastes, but regardless of your natural skin color, I think everyone faces pressures of ideal skin standards.

  2. Skin bleaching is another form of racism.

    I wrote a blog that I think you would like on skin bleaching 🙂 I used the L’oreal picture of Beyonce you referenced:

    http://virtuousandbeautiful.wordpress.com/2011/08/29/what-is-a-beautiful-person-investment-in-whiteness/

  3. amber0marie says:

    While I don’t deny that, in some cultures, light skin is a symbol of power, I don’t know that I’d go as far as saying skin bleaching is synonymous with racism.

    I mean, look at us white women. Constantly hitting up tanning beds and self-tanners to look DARKER. I’m so, so guilty in this respect. I hate looking “pale.” But honestly, I have no idea what our motives are. I just think I look better tan… even though I probably don’t look that much different.

    If Kartel lightened his skin because he felt like he HAS to do it to be respected, then that is unfortunate. But I can’t call him a racist or a self-hater.

  4. amber0marie says:

    Oh, and for the record, he looks a million times better with dark skin!

  5. courtthestar says:

    While skin bleaching may not necessarily BE racism, it is a result and perpetuation of racism. White is the ideal from a systematic standpoint and although many white people go tanning to get the “sun glow,” they are operating within the confines of a social construct called White Privilege. Because of their whiteness (which even tan white people have) they are able to bend the boundaries a bit. There is this sense of “we all do it” that often attempts to belittle the drastic effects that racism and histories of oppression have had on communities of color and to distract from the meaning and movements that exist there. No one operates in a vacuum, society informs how we move through the world, often people move with it, and every once in a while people who are able and willing move against and work to transgress social norms. About the idea that whatever color we are, we want something different, this is easily captured by the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” analogy. This is a nice attempt to make connections across issues of beauty and its lofty requirements, but we have to be willing to acknowledge the fact that wanting to be darker is not the same as wanting to be black, while skin bleaching is inherently connected to a desire for social status that comes with being white.

  6. courtthestar says:

    And to touch on the politics of hair, black people are charged with managing “corporate ideals” that are structured to exclude the genetic make-up of black people. We have to worry about whether our afro or locks will offend others or limit our opportunities in the job sphere, and these are aspects of our body that are HARD WIRED. All in all, these politics of beauty have, for hundreds of years excluded (or hoped to alter) the black body. << Hence a movement to a "more white" ideal (straighter hair and lighter skin). All one needs to do, is explore media images and the meanings and assumptions that accompany them, and being convinced of this truth (white is right) becomes quite simple.

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