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)
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?