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@lilkimqueenbee via Instagram

The wider context behind Lil Kim’s ‘whitened’ selfie

The rapper has been criticised for her skin tone after sharing a photo on Instagram, but the pressure to conform to narrow, corporate beauty standards is real

There are few stars more frequently criticised for their appearance than Lil’ Kim. A quick Google search of her name followed by the word ‘surgery’ brings up more than 5,000,000 results, and yesterday a new selfie posted on Instagram led to the rap icon becoming a trending topic on Twitter. Sites such as the Daily Mail, XXL and WorldStarHipHop have been quick to capitalise on the apparent news story, publishing articles which speculate that the musician has undergone recent surgery and bleached her skin. Naturally, Twitter was quick to unearth an interview which saw Kim admit, “I have low self-esteem and always have. Guys always cheated on me with with women who were European-looking that left me thinking ‘how can I compete with that? Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.

Other users have been less diplomatic, making cruel jokes about the star’s appearance; others claim to feel sorry for Kim, arguing for her as a victim of dominant white beauty ideals in modern society.

 

The reality is that the star has never shied away from discussing her experiences under the knife. Her 2005 hit “Shut Up Bitch” was a response to an industry that placed disproportionate emphasis on her appearance with its call-and-response chorus “Why is y’all on my shit? / Shut up, bitch!” Furthermore, a heartfelt interview with The Source magazine revealed that facial reconstruction surgery was a necessary measure after an abusive lover left lasting damage: “I came out of the hospital from getting my nose done and he broke my shit again… I had to have MRIs because he beat me so bad I couldn’t move.” Kim’s traumatic experiences motivated her to start her own charity which aims to raise funds for victims of domestic abuse – although, naturally, media coverage surrounding her charitable efforts is sparse.

Despite the legitimate reasons surrounding her cosmetic surgery, the rapper has long been a victim of mainstream bullying due to her appearance – back in 2013, chat show host Wendy Williams burst into laughter when she saw a photo of the star’s face, leading to a Twitter feud. Essentially, Lil’ Kim is renowned for her reputation as a sex symbol: her debut album was characterised by aggressive raps and brazen sexuality, and was accompanied by one of the most provocative promotional posters of all-time. It seems that, even in her 40s, the star is still held to unrealistic beauty standards and still has her appearance subjected to disproportionate levels of scrutiny.

“The irony is that the star’s image transformation was the result of aggressive domestic abuse as opposed to mere vanity; furthermore, Kim has stated in various recent interviews that she is content and happy with her own appearance”

The rap icon is also frequently accused of bleaching and lightening her skin to conform with western beauty ideals, despite the rumours never being confirmed. The subject of her skin tone is plastered all over her Instagram comments and has resulted in a number of articles questioning her assumed choices, but the reality is that we should discuss these issues on a wider level. Instead of electing Kim as a scapegoat, it would be more useful to discuss the harmful effects of the beauty industry on black women and question what society could do to change it.

Colourism is an issue that extends further than the choices of one woman; there are currently 373,000 posts on Instagram tagged with #teamlightskin as well as a slew of cosmetics companies aiming to profit from the insecurities of racial minorities with overpriced bleaching products. Black models like Leomie Anderson have famously called out make-up artists for being unprepared to work on black skin, whereas even blanket terms such as ‘nude’ usually cater only to white or slightly tanned skin tones. The existence of #teamlightskin demonstrates the failings of a beauty industry which propagates unrealistic ideals; these same ideals can lead to women of colour feeling excluded and fuel existing insecurities which result in the use and abuse of damaging skin-bleaching products.

Companies like Dove promote inclusive beauty but its parent company, Unilever, promotes skin-lightening creams in foreign countries. The beauty industry is characterised by its hypocrisies purely because a message that works in the United Kingdom simply won’t work in India, for example, where light skin is viewed by many as the epitome of beauty. In these countries the popularity of skin-lightening is extremely worrying – just five days ago, a website called Stylecraze published a list of skin-whitening ‘remedies’ which, at the time of writing, has almost 40,000 shares.

YouTube has various videos that show women using potentially damaging products on their faces and, even as they report irritation, praising the effects. A widespread promotion of white beauty ideals is leading to damaged self-esteem and fuelling the insecurities of entire nations of women that aren’t represented on-screen or in magazines. #Teamlightskin is the product of a failing industry.

The media circus surrounding Kim’s latest selfie is once again emblematic of the worrying importance we place on the appearance of female stars, but it also highlights the willingness of modern society to make unwanted assumptions. The horrible irony is that Lil’ Kim’s image transformation was the result of domestic abuse as opposed to mere vanity; furthermore, Kim has stated in various recent interviews that she is content and happy with her own appearance. No official statement has ever been released regarding her skin-whitening but, if the star has bleached her skin, we shouldn’t be blaming her or making her feel guilty for her choices – we should instead be questioning the issues within the beauty industry that led to the worrying popularity of a dangerous trend.

Model Munroe Bergdorf best summarised the reactions to the now-infamous selfie in an eloquent status that urged readers to look past the individual situation and instead question why women worldwide are risking their health to bleach out their natural features. After discussing the popularity of skin-bleaching and the ongoing issues of colourism, she wrote: “If you’re bashing a woman who is seemingly a victim of a white supremacist society that profits from telling women that they are ugly – more specifically (a society) telling black women that they need to lighten, erase and westernise their features to feel worth or to feel beautiful… then you are feeding into the problem.”