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Globalized Business of Skin Bleaching

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Health
Wordcount: 5055 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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You will spend money on this

You will become fairer in skin tone

You will have a moustache on your face

You will have uneven skin tone

With other parts being darker than others

Who says you are beautiful?



You are bleaching your skin, O! you are bleaching(2x)

African mother

You are bleaching your skin, O! you are bleaching

Young lady on the move

Yellow fever

Na your money go do am for you

You go yellow pass yellow

You go catch moustache for face

You go get your double color

Your yansh go black like coal
You sef go think say you dey fine
Who say you fine?……..

You dey bleach, o you dey bleach!
You dey bleach, o you dey bleach
African mother
You dey bleach, o you dey bleach
Sisi wey dey go
Yellow fever








                               Yellow Fever: Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1976)

Above is a part of the song by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti titled “Yellow Fever.” “Yellow fever was the nickname residents in Lagos, Nigeria gave to traffic wardens. This gave Fela the idea of using the expression to describe and decry the fashion among women for skin-whitening creams. The song is about cultural identity. He cites skin whitening as an example of the post-colonial, cultural inferiority complex which he believed was holding back the country’s development: skin whitening was not only harmful to beauty and health, it was also damaging to women’s psyches” (May, 2013, online).


What is beauty? How is African Beauty defined? The answers to these questions are conditional on the lens through which it is perceived. It is not uncommon to hear such phrases like ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’ and ‘beauty is skin deep’, but these sentiments do not hold much ground in today’s world, where beauty is progressively centered around Eurocentric features. This is especially visible in the messages transferred through the media which continually promote the ‘beauty’ and perfection of the white skin, and the high demand for skin whitening products as witnessed around the world. Consequently, notions of beauty have not been static; but have changed as a result of both internal- men versus women – and external – global white supremacy- beauty norms. These new beauty norms range from having tattoos and piercings on the body to having body surgeries, implants in different body parts as well as skin bleaching, which is the topic of interest.

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Skin-lightening, also known as skin whitening and skin bleaching is characterized by the use of cosmetic agents to lighten the complexion of one’s skin. The history of skin whitening can be traced to the Elizabethan age of powder and paint but is currently disproportionately practiced in communities of color (Blay, 2009a). As a universal phenomenon, skin whitening has been a practice among people throughout the world, and is particularly present in the countries throughout Africa, Africa Diaspora and Asia (Blay, 2011). Within the context of European/White nationalism, Whiteness contributed to a conceptualization of power as the ability to act from a privileged position and consequently designated those who embodied whiteness as those who had access to power (Blay, 2009a). This also spread to the United States of America, where irrespective of age or class, women used a variety of products generically known as “lily white, white wash and white cosmetic” in order to achieve the model face, which in the American context not only affirmed middleclass style but also racial privilege (Peiss, 1998). This increasingly popular tradition has been linked with complex historical, cultural, socio-political and psychological forces as motivating the practice and majority of scholars acknowledge the influence of history of colonialism and enslavement as historical factors and more recently, global white supremacy as major influences on the motivations for skin bleaching among ‘colored people’ (Blay, 2011).

Subsequently, this paper will involve an exploration of past works, reviewing the history and the means through which whiteness became powerfully significant in communities of color. Works of Blay (2009, 2011) which provides the primary template as well as link to secondary sources including, Glenn (2008), Jacobs et al. (2016), Leong (2006), among others, who discuss extensively the history of the practice of skin whitening, especially among women of African descent, as well as the role of the media and the use of celebrities in the portrayal of perfection and higher social and economic capital through possession of lighter skin shades. Thus, this paper will first consist of the history of skin lightening as an outcome of systems of oppression and capitalist ideology, the popularity and health implications of skin lightening, as well as the business of skin bleaching in terms of producers, advertiser and consumers, and what they stand to gain.

Colonialism, Christianity and Skin-Whitening

Various scholars have identified skin bleaching as resultant from past systems of white dominance in black communities/countries. For instance, Gooden (2011, p.82) noted that ‘skin bleaching is recognized as a direct outcome of various systems of oppression, a crisis created by whites during the enslavement period.’ Jacobs et al. (2016) also posited that the origin of skin bleaching tradition found in the colonial era, where persons with lighter skin shades enjoyed more socio-economic privileges. Thus, these systems of oppression, namely, colonialism and enslavement, which already legitimized the rule of Whites over Blacks or Coloreds, as well as saw persons with lighter skin tones being socio-economically favored would result in the minority groups, in this case, the Blacks or Coloreds, placing more value on lighter skin tones.

Blay (2011) argued that despite varying classifications of groups of constantly changing persons classified as belonging in the White category, White Supremacy, has over time, been instrumental in influencing the thoughts, feelings, behavior of persons whether they are classified as White and non-White, White supremacy is thus based less on racial Whiteness than it is on ideological Whiteness. “It is a system which prescribes [socially constructed] series of immunities, privileges, rights and assumptions…” (Ross, 1995, as cited by Blay, 2011). For instance, she explains how the practice of skin bleaching by non-Whites presumably to enjoy some of the privileges experienced by Whites serves to maintain the ideology of White Supremacy even in their own communities. Consequently, Gooden (2011) noted that colorism was strengthened in black post-colonial countries as a result of white supremacy and “racialized notions of physical beauty were internalized and became normalized in everyday interactions” (Gooden, 2011, p. 83). Hence, when these beliefs are internalized, it is not surprising that individuals, both men and women, would aspire to attain or achieve that standard which will give them better advantages at life, whether with regards to better-positioned spouses, better job prospects, higher bargaining power at their jobs, and higher social status. One then asks, what are the privileges that accrue to Africans/Blacks who lighten their skin? To understand this, it is important to explore how the notion of White supremacy came to penetrate the thoughts of Africans/Blacks.

Arguing that European nationalism and Christianity are two inter-reliant ideological tools employed by the Whites  in ensuring their control and power natives during the colonial and enslavement period, Blay (2011, p.8) stated that “Christianity not only informs many of the fundamentals of Western (European) culture, but as the handmaiden of colonization and enslavement, it also [supports] the construction of a hegemonic white identity which further substantiates a consciousness of nationalism.”(Dyer, 1997, as cited by Blay, 2011). She explained that the primacy of whiteness was established during the colonial and enslavement period, which was presented and recognized as homogenous with Christian ideologies and consequently, “whiteness came to be [equated] with godliness, ‘the light’ and moral, good while blackness [came to be equated] with darkness, damnation, immoral and evil (Blay, 2009a, as cited in Blay, 2011, p.8), effectively contrasting between the two.

A further contrast effectively employed by colonialists was the portrayal of Christ is depicted with blonde hair and blue eyes, a reflection of the proclaimed superiority of the White race. Thus, whiteness becomes embodied by humanity and signifies moral and physical superiority (Gomez, 2005). With these distinctions, it is not surprising that the notion of White superiority came to be internalized as the standard of beauty and perfection to be aspired to and blackness being perceived as inferior. Subsequently, White skin and features become perceived as symbols of beauty and status and an intrinsic part of the global system of capitalism.

The Utilization of Adverts in Advancing Skin-Whitening

A process through which the White Ideal was further advanced during the colonial period was through a process called commodity racism (Blay, 2011). McClintock (1995) argued that commodity racism provided an opportunity for British colonialists to advance their ‘commodity culture’ and ‘civilizing mission’ (McClintock 1995, p.129). This ensured that they were able to exchange ‘inferior goods’ like soaps for more valuable materials from the colonial empires (Blay, 2011; McClintock, 1995). In addition to the fact that the colonialists employed force/violence so as to ensure that Africans accepted the exchange of their inferior goods, they also aggressively utilized advertisements in their portrayal of convincing representations of perfection and purity (McClintock, 1995). One of such advertising companies was Pear’s, which in the 19th century put out an advertising campaign which portrayed the soap’s power of ‘not only keeping the European body pure, but also able to wash the black skin white’ (Blay, 2011, p.16). Below is a picture of Pear’s soap advertisement in 1899 (obtained from www.advertisingarchives.co.uk) which shows a respectable, well-dressed white man washing his hands and at the bottom right corner of the image we see a black man, who appears to be assuming a humble posture, on his haunches, accepting soap from a man who appears to be superior to him. The pervasive imagery portrayed through the use of media demonstrates the deliberate disseminations of notions of the superiority of Whites and inferiority of Blacks in comparison.



                (Image 1) Advertisement for Pear’s Soap, 1899 (www.advertisingarchives.co.uk)

The ad’s caption reads:

The first step towards lightening The White Man’s Burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness. Pear’s Soap is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place — it is the ideal toilet soap.


With constant portrayal of these images throughout the colonial period (more can be found on www.advertisingarchives.co.uk) in advancing their agenda, the colonials were successfully able to advance their profit-making agenda, as well as ‘re-orient’ the psyches of Africans, to the point of subconsciously believing in the superiority of White or lighter skin shades over theirs. This phenomenon has become increasingly pervasive up till present day and has especially been aided by the spread of the media. Consequently, it is not surprising that communities of color remain avid consumers of skin whitening products in their efforts to attain ‘perfection’, as well as gain access to social and economic capital reserved exclusively for persons with lighter skin tones.

Blay (2011) in her article notes that “skin bleaching practices represent the attempt to approximate the White ideal and gain access to the humanity and social status historically reserved for Whites” (Blay, 2011, p.5). This legacy of skin bleaching has continued up till present day in communities of color. For instance, in China, 40% of women reportedly use skin lightening products, while in India about 60% of the cosmetics market consists of skin bleaching products. In African communities, it is reported that in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25%, 77%, 27%, 35% and 59% of women respectively, use skin bleaching products on a regular basis (United Nations Environment Program, 2008). Thus, the production of skin whitening commodities serves different purposes to producers and consumers; for producers, increased consumption of these products means increased profitability while consumers are able to buy the needed social, economic or racial capital.

The global media industry is further implicated in the skin-lightening phenomenon, with the use of lighter-skin toned celebrities in advertisements for skin-lightening, and who represent the epitome of beauty and success. For example, scholars have noted the increasingly influential that persons with lighter skin tones are advertised as being healthier and more beautiful, with higher social class than person with darker skin shades (Jacobs et al., 2010; Hamed, et al., 2010). For instance, although they do not publicly admit to using skin bleaching products, Glenn (2008) notes that over time Celebrities like Rihanna, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj have increasing become fairer in skin tone, and that through this they portray lighter skin tone as the sign of success. Ultimately, advertisements suggest that lighter skin tones increase one’s chances of finding one’s dream occupation or finding a partner. Consequently, well-known African artists like Nomasonto Mshoza Maswanganyi bleached her skin because she was ‘tired of being ugly’, while Dencia developed her own skin lightening product, called “Whitenicious” (Jacobs, et al., 2016), recently inviting Black Chyna to Nigeria to help in promoting her product. This underscores the important roles played by popular persons or celebrities in the influencing the consumption behavior of the populace. Due to the fact that the media is widely accessible to a large population of audiences, it is not surprising that the constant consumption of information delivered through the media would influence peoples’ perceptions about themselves and make them seek ways to achieve same levels of beauty in order to achieve similar levels of success.

Consequently, studies from across the world, China, India, United States, United Kingdom, the Caribbean indicate the prevalence of a thriving skin lightening cream industry (National Toxicology Program, 2009). Although skin lightening products have been found to be useful in treating dermatological conditions such as hyper-pigmentary melasma, age-induced darkening, acne as well as vitiligo, they require the use of hydroquinone-containing products and are under strict guidelines for clinical use. Other consumers use skin lightening products to lighten skin color, enhance radiance, even out skin tone, improve skin texture, satisfy peers, attract partners and to enhance or increase employment opportunities (Jacobs et al., 2016). Skin whitening is highlighted by medical experts as one of the most common forms of harmful body modification practices (Charles, 2003). The practice remains widely popular despite widespread advocacy by the World Health Organization (2015) that the bleaching products contain inorganic mercury which can cause kidney damage, skin discoloration and rashes among other negative health outcomes. The use of the creams remains prevalent across socio-economic statuses and rural and urban populations, with the perceived benefits including increased perception of beauty, better job and marriage prospects.


When the production and consumption of these skin lightening products/commodities are analyzed within the Marxist Capitalist framework, it becomes necessary to take account of the overarching driving force, which is the capitalist system and globalization, as well as the various actors, namely, the producers, marketers and consumers of the skin lightening goods and services. What stimulates demand for these products? Also, do consumers buy these beauty products and services to enhance their labor power?

Skin bleaching creams go by many names: skin lighteners, skin whiteners, skin toning creams, skin evening creams, skin fading gels and are advertised as being able to brighten the skin or cleanse it of impurities. Initially introduced into the African continent during the colonial era, the skin bleaching industry is thriving around the globe, particularly in Third World, post-colonial countries. Skin lighteners are commonly used in places including Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jamaica, Philippines, Japan, India, Tanzania, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, and less so but also the United States (WHO, 2015).

In order to explain the role of colonialism and Christianity in advancing the White Ideal and the phenomenon of skin bleaching, I will adapt Marx’s (1867) discussion of the “Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in Volume I of “Das Kapital.” Marx (1867) explains that colonialism and Christianity were important instruments used in enforcing the obedience of the natives being colonized/occupied. He further explains how the colonialists were able to amass wealth through the expropriation of valuable materials such as salt, opium, betel, etc. Relating this to the history of skin bleaching as documented by scholars, the colonial system also set the set for the transnational exchange of goods between the colonialists and the natives, although the natives received goods of less value compared to what the colonialists gained in return for the exchange. Also, the colonial era provided a platform for the colonialists to advance that White Ideal, as well as promote the sales of their whitening/cleansing soaps, both of which have become widely accepted and continually consumed in the global community

With regards to the skin lightening products, Pears and Lux soap were one of the first brands to be used in colonial times (Blay, 2011). Other brands in contemporary times include L’Oréal, Sheseido, Dove and Nivea, among others. Glenn (2008) reports that the global skin lightening industry has progressively become successful, grossing billions of dollars. The capitalist system thrives in a consumption economy, and all the means of encouraging consumption are employed by owners of the means of production, in this case, global producers of skin lightening products. The means through which these products are marketed include the media, in the portrayal of images of beauty, perfection and success with lighter-skinned persons. They are marketed as simply another beauty product available to women to increase their beauty, their Whiteness, and therefore, their socio-economic status. Adopting Marx’s (1867) concepts of exchange value, use value, for producers and marketers who have made impressive amounts of money and gains from the production of these skin whitening products, the commodity has a high exchange value, while for the consumers, the use-value is high. Thus, when a consumer believes he/she needs a product (market demand) and attaches a high value to it, and the producer is able to make that commodity available for sale, then trade can occur.

As discussed earlier, some studies have shown the impact of black celebrity endorsements for skin lightening products on consumer markets (Glenn, 2008). Celebrities like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj give the impression that lighter skin is more beautiful. Skin lightening is thus perceived as the way earn more economic and social capital, and persons who engage in skin lightening could be described as endeavoring tom increase their labor power. Marx, in Capital, discusses the concept of labor power ‘as the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description.’ Labor power, in this instance, refers to the whitened skin which increases the probability of an individual gaining increased the economic capital. Marx also writes, ‘labor-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so far as, its possessor, the individual whose labor-power it is, offers it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammeled owner of his capacity for labor, i.e., of his person. He and the owner of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other seller; both, therefore, equal in the eyes of the law.’ Lighter skin when offered as a commodity, gives an individual greater power to negotiate with the employer and also allows him/her more earning power, compared with darker-skinned counterparts. This is because lighter skin shade is apparently highly valued in certain occupations, and these trends are increasingly being followed/copied by persons whom want to be economically upwardly mobile.

For instance, Ntshingila (2005) noted that black women in South Africa, mostly between the ages 25 to 35 used skin lighteners, in order to increase their chances of earning higher incomes. In India as well, skin color is also very important. as mostly fair-skinned actresses and models are featured on the covers of magazines and in movies. Gopinath (2012) argued that for actors who were not fair-skinned enough like Kajol, they were portrayed as lighter-complexioned on screens. She also noted that although actresses with wheatish complexion are beginning to be more common in the industry; most of the top-earning actresses are known for their fair skin.  

From the foregoing, it is clear that Capitalism has been implicated in the process of colonialism, the spread of Christianity and consumption behaviors globally. The skin-whitening practices which served as propaganda for colonialists during the colonial and slavery era, have had far-reaching consequences in the twenty-first century. Coupled with the role of the media in the portrayal of images that represent ‘standards of beauty’ and the global consumption society driven by the capitalist system, it is not surprising that skin bleaching is now a global phenomenon. I find it interesting that, although I did not notice this in our earlier readings of Marx’s chapters, Marx had already documented these behaviors (relationships between colonialists and the natives) in his chapters on the primitive accumulation of capital in Das Kapital. Furthermore, it was interesting to find that one could view the production of skin bleaching products in terms other than women beautifying themselves for men. Rather, this can be understood as strategic means by producers, through the employment of certain images and projections of success, to encourage consumption and influence decisions of consumers. Also, consumers of these skin-bleaching products are also able to see their use of these products as possibly increasing their economic and social capital.


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