People often ask me how I keep my skin white. My answer: genetics, anemia, and overdressing. My mother is fair-skinned. I have a pretty low red blood cell count. Wearing black keeps the ultraviolet rays away, keeping my skin a little bit pasty-white. It is far departed from the tall-dark-and-handsome that defines perfection in males, but for women, it’s somewhat almost there.
How that reflects in the world, I do not know. In department stores, entire shelves and racks are filled with creams and soaps and lotions that promise fairer skin. Pills and peels abound, claiming everything from lowering melanin production to exfoliating damaged skin to reveal whiter skin. Billboards and TV commercials prominently feature glutathione; as if the whole philosophy of the body is towards cleansing.
Skin whitening, as a philosophy of life, lends itself well to dichotomies. Dark = bad, light = good. Dark = dirty, light = clean. Dark = exotic, light = necessary. Dark = dulled, light = renewed. Dark = diseased, light = healthy. From this black-and-white view of the world from lenses smeared with whitening cream, it’s fairly easy to understand where the philosophy of whitening comes from.
The easy route to explanation would be colonial mentality: colonization had effects on our psyche and attitudes towards dark skin. But beyond our fair-skinned colonizers, the dichotomies are ingrained in deeper strands and currents of where we come from. Light skin raises deeper connotations: wealth, aristocracy, your status in life. In today’s world, it is less of something colonial than it is more of something aspirational.
Even the processes of whitening and skin renewal reveal more of the pain and mortification people are willing to take to reach “light.” By damaging the skin through unnatural exfoliation and exposing it to bleaching chemicals, beauty is achieved. To take it to extremes, it would be to rub diamond-dust in your face, and/or pour bleach on it to achieve a beautiful kind of whiteness.
Pre-modern society is no stranger to the kind of damage done and pain endured to achieve some form of perceived beauty: lip plates, neck rings, ritual tattooing. Today’s mortification for beauty takes a more chemical route of washes and cosmetics and all sorts of products applied to the skin. Or mud, or face-grade sandpaper, or whatever else there is to homogenize the sense of beauty.
Yet while aspects of this still exist in modern society, entire movements, struggles, and advocacies – from the feminist currents of social thought to the civil rights movements all over the world – have sought to establish the acceptance of the body. The dichotomies and connotations of dark and light are true only for a selling sense, but should it also hold true for society’s views? Do we put down the brown because light makes right?
I don’t think so. White skin is an option: no movement, struggle, insurrection, cause, advocacy, or revolution was ever defined solely and completely by a whitening imperative, or a philosophy of bleaching. The civil rights movement challenged America’s view of “people of color,” as the end of Apartheid was marked by an understanding of South African society as more than just a question of Afrikaans and separate bathrooms. Empowerment was not achieved by soap, but by education, suffrage, and a clear direction for recognition and respect among women. There is more to the world, and more to the deeply-engendered strands of society, than the forced perspective of dark and light.
It took me a while to accept my white skin as a fact of life: there are more pressing problems in the human body – and in human society – than skin color. If I were brown or black, or white or yellow, or even green, it would not have made a world of a difference.