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2016-07-07 (1)

Why skin bleaching is much more than ‘body modification’

When Azealia Banks compared skin bleaching to wearing weaves it exposed how far some dark skinned women will go in order to attain white beauty standards

Usually, when I see an “Azealia Banks has said something controversial” headline I make a mental note to take it with a pinch of salt. After all, hardly a month goes by without the outspoken rapper/singer/professional clap-backer saying something controversial. Whether that’s when she’s leading the assassination of Iggy Azalia’s career, calling Dazed cover star Zayn Malik a “curry scented bitch”, or slamming Beyoncé’s depiction of black female identity in Lemonade

However, after months of speculation on social media, she has admitted that she has started to bleach her skin, describing it simply as “body modification” and dismissing the subsequent backlash as “petty”. This isn't the first time she's spoken about colourism in the industry or hinted that she was going to start changing her skin tone. In April she tweeted that she wasn't light skin enough "yet" and later tweeted: "Depression. Watching white/lighter skinned women advance all while having worse music than mine is confusing." In her most recent rant, she compares skin bleaching to 30-inch weaves that “tear out your edges”, “nose jobs” and being well-spoken – to her, this is all a part of being a “good house negro”. Obviously, I do not wish to legitimise Banks’ online rants as she has become prone to provocation which can occasionally border on bigotry, but the 21-minute broadcast which you can watch below was evocative and raised interesting points. For women like Banks, lightening your skin is just a process in their beauty routine, a standard part of trying to assimilate in a white western world. But, when does assimilation become a complete rejection of your race? And at what point does personal grooming become self-hate?

Many are quick to draw comparisons between white people tanning and black people using skin lightening products, and while they both share a similarity in wanting to alter one’s skin tone, tanning in no way has the same social, historical or political weight. Back in the days when #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin were flooding Twitter bios and being used in a rivalry between varying shades of brown, the word ‘colourism’ entered my vocabulary. That isn’t to say I didn’t know or feel it already, I just didn’t have a name for it. As someone with dark skin growing up, I had people suggest I stay out of the sun, felt inferior to my lighter friends and was told I was “pretty for a dark girl”. The worst is that most of these comments didn’t come from white people.

In these cases, media representation is vital. When there is an absence of an alternative form of beauty it subconsciously tells people that they aren’t good enough. Having attended a predominately white high school surrounded by the idea that a tanned skinny blonde was the ideal, it didn’t help that the magazines I read didn’t have anyone who looked like me in them. Or that whenever people who looked like me were on TV they performed the tired sassy black girl stereotype, or were a struggling single mother. There were times in my teen years I wasn’t just worried about weight and spots, I genuinely thought one of the things that would improve my looks would be to be a shade or two lighter. I contemplated the idea of finding skin lightening creams but luckily didn’t have enough pocket money and didn’t know where to find it. Luckily my teen angst was short lived.

Colourism and the “lighter is better” mentality has its roots in slavery, the legacy of the plantation hierarchy is at the heart of why some black people dislike their own black skin. White slave owners sat at the top of the social ladder, while the mixed race or lighter skinned were permitted to work in the house, and the darkest were left to do the hard labour outside in the hot sun where they got even darker. Fast forward to Banks believing that her bleaching her skin is something that is a part of a “woman’s right to choose” and suddenly it doesn’t really sound like a choice at all.

The entertainment industry has helped to perpetuate this. Lil Wayne often raps about his love of “red bones”, another term for a lighter skinned black person and once rapped “Beautiful black woman, I bet that bitch look better red.” Kelly Rowland is on a quest to put together a new girl group that includes darker girls because right now there is a shortage, she says: “I feel it’s so necessary for my niece, my unborn kid, she has to see more chocolate women”. Even when portraying the life of music legend Nina Simone, a dark-skinned woman whose features were far from European, a light skinned woman was chosen. Zoe Saldana is smothered in black makeup and wears a prosthetic nose in a bizarre casting decision that, for many, felt like a slap in the face.

“To cover your whole body in toxins to achieve a lighter skin tone is conceding to society’s idea that lighter skin is superior”

It's worth noting that many of the ingredients present in skin lightening products are so toxic it is actually illegal to sell a lot of them in the UK. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t find them in your local black hair shop if you ask. Hydroquinone stops melanin from being produced but it can also lead to skin ageing, liver damage, and hyperpigmentation. Extremely high doses of steroids in certain creams can cause acne, face swelling and thinning of the skin. Some creams even have mercury in them, a substance which has been banned in skin products since 1976 as it can cause kidney damage and skin discolouration.

To cover your whole body in toxins to achieve a lighter skin tone is conceding to society’s idea that lighter skin is superior. You may say that my opinion is unfair considering I coat my own hair in chemicals that can burn through a Coke can, but there is a difference. During the aforementioned teenage angst, I permed my hair because my afro was too far away from the straight texture I desired. This is something many black women do to fit in, and you could argue skin lightening is, therefore, similar. But, regardless of what I do with my hair to assimilate, I am still visibly black.

I’m not saying that lighter girls get a good deal from colourism either. 22-year-old singer Tinashe spoke about how other black women are quick to attribute her success to her hue rather than her talent. She said many women see her and think that, as she’s on “the lighter spectrum”, she “wins.” But, the issue with people like Azealia Banks, the now unrecognisable Lil Kim, and other women who “choose” to lighten their skin tone is how hard it is to argue against their “experimenting”. Taking into account our history, the health risks involved and the negative attitude towards darker skin tones, it feels like they are trying to be accepted and achieve the perceived beauty of light skinned girls.

It is the final step towards erasing your race. You’re saying that your skin isn’t good enough. The same skin that has been subjected to abuse, enslavement and oppression is not desirable to you. You’re legitimising those ideas and basically agreeing with them. So yes bleaching her skin does negate a lot of what Banks has said about race, and the mindset dark skinned girls have to challenge, because instead of fighting it, she’s given in. The key to eradicating colourism isn't to perpetuate it, the answer is to embrace your blackness and stop believing you are inferior.