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Why skin bleaching is not comparable to tanning

December 21, 2012

This post was prompted by a discussion with a friend about Vybz Cartel and his ever fading skin tone. We were not discussing the bleaching of his skin, but his defence for doing it.

Before and After

Before and After

Vybz says that a black person bleaching his/her skin is no different to a white person getting a tan. He is wrong for the following reasons:

Tans are temporary, bleaching is permanent.

This is the most obvious one but it’s worth tackling this issue from a biological angle rather than a psychological one. Skin was never designed/evolved (delete according to belief) to get lighter than its “base” colour because the process of lightening skin bears no health advantages to humans. The paler your skin the less protection you have from the sun’s harmful rays. The more prone you are to sunburn and in the worst case scenario, skin cancer. When a black person choses to lighten his/her skin they are sacrificing their natural protection for what they believe to be a more attractive hue. And they are doing this permanently.

You could argue that a white person that tans using UV rays is exposing themselves to health risks just the same. But these risks can be controlled through the use of sunscreen and exposure to harmful UV rays can be controlled with the careful use of tanning beds. There are also safe options for white people to achieve a tanned appearance; tanning lotions, potions and creams are rubbed on and washed off.

When you bleach, you are fundamentally altering the pigment of your skin in an unnatural way. When you tan, you are engaging the body’s natural mechanisms.  Tanning is so natural, that people who are not exposed to enough sunlight are vulnerable to vitamin D deficiency and associated conditions such as rickets. People who are not exposed to bleaching suffer no associated conditions because there are none.

Preference for lighter skin reinforces negative and historical white European traditions.

Tanning is fashion unconnected to negative and historical legacy

From the biological, we go to the psychological.  There is not a brown nation on this planet touched by white Europeans that favours dark skin over light. Instead, whether you were born in Asia, the Caribbean or Africa you will traditionally see ‘soft’ hair and light skin as more attractive than ‘nappy’ hair and dark skin.

So, let’s think about this. Centuries ago, from the very first depictions of wild and cannibalistic black people poisoning minds in the 16th century  to the demeaning American characterisations of the 20th century, black  people have been positioned as lazy, dumb and above all, unattractive.

racist cartoon 1866

Racist cartoon, 1866

That is 400 years of conditioning. Repetitive ideas replicated in fiction, pseudo-science  and real life discrimination above all things reinforced one idea. The darker your skin, the less human you were deemed to be. The less you have to offer society. And the less desirable you are.

A black person today who chooses to lighten their skin recalls this tragic racism, whether they intend to or not. After all, there is a limit to how dark a tan a white person wants. They want to be brown, but not too brown. Yet skin bleaching has only one goal. To be as white as possible and to stay that way.

Why would black people struggle for emancipation from physical and mental slavery for over 400 hundred years, only to come out the other end practicing the same ideas and beliefs that enslaved them in the first place?

The fact such industries exist and are consumed by us point to one thing; our physical condition may have changed, but our mental condition has not.

Let’s counter this with a brief history of tanning, which has only become socially desirable in the past 50-60 years. Before then, pale and porcelain like complexions were celebrated (watch American films made up until 1969 to see light skinned, feminine beauty championed ahead of tanned skin tones). Did you ever see Audrey Hepburn without a big sun hat?

Also, in today’s modern age, tanned white skin does not permeate culture in the way skin bleachers would have you believe. Catwalk models and glossy magazine cover stars have pale, white complexions. The message is simple. Whilst tans are paraded as a false sign of health and fitness, they are not paraded as the only sign of health and fitness. Within the myths of white beauty, diversity is still allowed. Black people are still denied that diversity of representation and we further deny it for ourselves when we endorse the idea that lighter skin is more desirable than darker skin.

White people have the same issues with skin tone. That pasty one from Girls Aloud used to get bullied

This is 100% correct. If you happen, for example, to be born pale, freckled and ginger you are in for a torrid time at school and in unreconstructed workplaces. I don’t under estimate the suffering this kind of bullying can cause. However, whilst literally identical to the teasing of a dark skinned black or Asian person, it is not culturally, socially or historically the same. In any way.

The obvious difference is that ginger people weren’t robbed of their culture and identity and made to pick cotton. Not that their skin could have survived those summers. But the point is, when a person teases another for being pale and white, they are literally teasing them for being pale and white. The words are just sticks and stones. There is no historical link that dictates their great, great, great, great, great, great, great ancestors suffered the same fate. There is no racist hangover that means having pale skin makes some think that you are more likely to be guilty of a crime, more likely to be seen as uneducated and less likely to get a job.

On a personal level, a pale white skinned person will be entitled to feel they are subjected to unnecessary abuse. But there are so many representations of pale white beauty out there, there is no shortage of imagery to feed one’s self esteem. Every white super model under the sun has maintained a pale skin tone, as have most white American movie stars. If you want to clutch at straws, there is always Bianca from Eastenders. They got rid of Hattie decades ago.

Clearly considered butters

Clearly considered butters

What exists to feed a black woman’s self esteem if she has dark skin? Famous black men reject women they deem to be too dark, if they will be seen in public with a black woman in the first place. Video hoes, make up models and famous black women generally gloss over black features to help them appeal to a broader commercial fanbase at the cost of their black beauty. Eventually, life gets better for the pale ginger teenagers bullied at school. They grow up to be Damien Lewis, Michael Fassbender and Rebekah Brooks (okay, maybe she’s a terrible example). For us, even after so many centuries of outside hate and self hate, the commercial black self image just seems to get worse and worse.

In conclusion skin bleaching:

Corresponds with no natural biological function, is permanently damaging and serves no physiological purpose.

Perpetuates ideas that were established by the most racist of cultures and continued by privileged white Europeans who inherited that racism.

Is not comparable to a tanning process which is only recently fashionable, temporary, has risks that can be mitigated and does not produce an end result that is considered the pinnacle of white beauty, just one form of it.

Is not comparable to the ‘plight’ of paler skinned white people who still have white privilege to fall back on and have role models that prove in the wider, adult world, no one really cares.


Until we learn to love ourselves in all our skin tones, like the way white people generally do, we will continue to live in a world created for us to suffer, not prosper in.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 14, 2015 18:03

    If bleaching “Perpetuates ideas that were established by the most racist of cultures and continued by privileged white Europeans who inherited that racism.” then it seems highly contrary for people to continue to bleach and subsequently justify it!

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