- South Africa remains the only country in the world to prohibit all cosmetic claims to skin bleaching, lightening or whitening. And we have a blend of Black Consciousness and science to thank for it.
- But regulation hasn’t totally snuffed out demand for dangerous creams containing toxic chemicals.
- Read this book extract from Lynn M. Thomas’s ‘Beneath the Surface: A transnational history of skin lighteners’
At a 1969 Durban marketing conference, one presenter, Mr A. Tiley, expressed an abiding optimism in South Africa’s skin lightener trade.
Tiley explained that another business consultant, a recent immigrant — likely from the United States — had offered a “misguided” prediction: political independence in Africa and the Black Power movement with its affirmation that “Black is Beautiful” signalled the trade’s long-term demise.
The country’s market was too strong and too distant from those political movements to feel their effect, Tiley insisted. Mockingly, Tiley asked whether Black Power activists could really change “purchasing pattern in the Republic of South Africa?”
Tiley answered his own question by arguing that skin lighteners carried a “sex[ual]” rather than “political connotation”.
Today, the sales of skin lighteners extend across Asia, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The market for these products is expected to total US$12.3-billion (R211-billion) by 2027, according to industry research published earlier this year. This demand is despite the toxicities of many creams and antiracist activists’ condemnation of them.
Like other potentially dangerous beauty practices, skin lightening pits the promise of bodily enhancement against the threat of physical harm.
In the 1960s, Tiley was right that desires to “look attractive and sexy” spurred skin lightener sales. What he missed was how those desires had long been shaped by cultural and political ties that crisscrossed the Atlantic, and by racial and gender inequalities.
And over the course of the 1970s and 1980s in South Africa, as resistance to apartheid grew, Tiley’s questions would appear more naive than the newcomer’s prediction.
In the words of Khanyi Mbau: ‘Beauty is all a choice we have … [depending on] the size of the wallet’
About the same time that Tiley attended the Durban conference, students at the nonwhite medical school across town founded the South African Student Organisation (Saso). Saso leader Steve Biko and others were influenced by Black Power activists as well as, for instance, African nationalism, Marxism and Frantz Fanon.
Black Consciousness activists reworked transnational influences to craft a political ideology that addressed life under apartheid by imagining new ways of being under a barrage of images and messages that equated power and beauty with lightness and whiteness.
Activists embraced the philosophy “Black is Beautiful,” which had begun to circulate in popular media and was often a direct retort to the pervasive presence of skin lighteners.
Meanwhile, Michael G Whisson and William Weil, in a 1971 book, described how many people, regardless of skin colour, still believed that “light skins were better than dark skins”. This belief, they explained, had