Shades of Beauty


Shades of Beauty
Cut by: Davita Cuttita

Beauty comes in a multitude of forms and is unique to every woman.

It’s great to have fun with one’s beauty; experimenting with make-up colours, hairstyles and clothing; maybe trying some new jewellery or wearing socks that don’t match for a day.

Beauty is not just an outer act; true beauty is deeper than that. True beauty is the measure of the joy we take in our personalities, relationships and cultures as well as the courage, discipline, strength and integrity we exude when facing the tribulations of the world and our own imperfections.

However, a growing outer “beauty” trend within the community of Women of Colour is the trend of skin whitening, also known as lightening or “bleaching”.

Most skin lighteners can be bought over-the-counter in lotion format for daily use while stronger items such as facial peels may require a prescription. The active ingredient in the vast majority of these products is hydroquinone, a chemical that suppresses the production of melanin (the stuff your body makes that determines skin tone). It’s also important to note that sometimes toxins such as mercury have also been found as the active ingredient in some varieties of skin lightening products that continue to exist on the present-day market.

An assortment of "Fair & White" products, a popular brand of skin lightener.

An assortment of "Fair & White" products, a popular brand of skin lightener.

Many of these products allege that their purpose is to help remove the dark scarring typically left behind by acne or chickenpox or to help even out an uneven complexion. Nevertheless, there is a growing number of Coloured Women all over the world—Latin America, Asia, America, Africa, East India and the Caribbean—that use these products to help dull the melanin in their skin and lighten the overall complexion of their entire bodies believing that light skin will make them more beautiful, desirable and socially acceptable.

Being as light-skinned as possible has been seen as an asset for hundreds upon hundreds of years in many White and Coloured cultures.

During slavery, a light-skinned slave or “house slave” was typically treated “better” than those with darker complexions or “field slaves”. They didn’t have to toil in the fields from sunrise to sunset or survive off the master’s scraps at mealtime. Rather, a light-skinned slave worked in the master’s house and partook in the same meals as he did. Occassionally, they were also allowed to be educated and were treated very similarly to the Master’s own children.

All over the Coloured world, light and dark complexions have always had the same meaning.

A light complexion symbolized someone well-treated, perhaps educated and possibly wealthy (or living with someone who was). Dark complexions symbolized ignorance, hours of gruelling labour and were even seen by some early European explorers and 18th century justifiers of slavery as a curse.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in over 500 years and to make matters worse, the Coloured community—women in particular—have begun pointing the gun of ignorance at their own reflections creating a vicious, billion-dollar market of self-hate.

In the African-American community, there are slang terms to describe the two most prominent types of “light-skin”. Someone who is described as a “Yellow Bone” is typically a Black person with extremely fair skin; so fair that they can almost (or may on occasion) pass for White. A “Red Bone” refers to someone with a caramel or olive-like complexion. The adjectives of “high” and “low” are sometimes used to further describe how light or dark one’s light-skin is (i.e. “I think that girl over there looks like a ‘high yellow bone’”).

Actress Lisa Bonet could be classified as a "yellow bone".

Actress Lisa Bonet could be classified as a "yellow bone".

Supermodel & talkshow host Tyra Banks could be classified as a "Red Bone".

Supermodel & talkshow host Tyra Banks could be classified as a "Red Bone".

Conversely, in Jamaican Creole, my mother tongue, the terms “yellow” or “high-coloured” are commonly used to describe extremely fair skin.

All the women on my father’s side of the family are “high-coloured yellow bones” with extremely long, wavy hair as my father’s ancestry is rather mixed with Syrian (or Jewish) and Scottish ancestry. My father himself is also so light that he has (unwillingly) passed as White on occasion. My mother’s side is somewhat mixed too, but not as much as my father’s so she is darker. I have always been fair-skinned or a “high-colour redbone” and as I grow older, my skin has begun to get lighter and my hair has begun to grow longer and wavier emulating the features of the women on my father’s side.

As my complexion lightens, my mother and her sister take note, proud that I am becoming more and more like my Dad’s “high-colour people” each day.

The shades of beauty in our media have such a limited spectrum, a spectrum that stops with the beginning of fear, discrimination and ignorant stereotyping. This spectrum is affecting the employment, self-esteem and joy of men and women of darker skin tones everywhere—within and without their communities. They are the invisible and under-represented members of White and multicultural society.

Where are all the dark-skinned models, entertainers, politicians and dolls?

When I returned to Jamaica four years ago at age 19, I went to the bank with my parents. All the people working there were “high-coloured people” of the “red” or “yellow” persuasion. My Dad bumped into one of his childhood friends, an extremely “high coloured yellow bone”, who had worked there for years and was recently promoted. Thrilled, he invited my family to his office. His office was HUGE and on the very top floor of the bank; his floors were marble and he had a cherry wood desk and plush leather armchair.

Alek Wek, a currently popular dark-skinned supermodel.

Alek Wek, a currently popular dark-skinned supermodel.

Afterwards, we went to the Wray & Nephew rum factory to grab a few bottles and for the first time on my visit, I finally saw some dark-skinned people who were working indoors. They were lifting heavy boxes and operating heavy machinery in the back while a “red bone” worked the cash register.

“Why do all the dark Black people have to do the heavy, hard work?” I asked my mom.

“Because,” she replied “everyone is too scared they will steal from the cash register.”

It’s HARD for dark-skinned People of Colour all over the world. Not only are they looked down upon for their complexion by Whites, but they are also looked down upon by their very own people or families while their counter-parts are displayed as more successful, intelligent, articulate and sexually desirable than themselves.

Who do you go to and where do you turn when it seems like the whole world wishes you weren’t “so dark”?

That you are ugly or less-trustworthy than another person of the same race, experience and education because of it?

What do you do and more importantly, why is this attitude OK in the Coloured community?

Tyra Banks did a segment on the affects of skin bleaching by interviewing a group of Black women using the products; it is included below in its entirety.

One of the interviewees is a mother who not only bleaches her own skin, but the skin of her three young sons, ages 4, 6 and 8. As with many cosmetic treatments, skin bleaching requires a habitual routine to preserve its affects and many of these women were prepared and willing to risk their financial stability and lives for  (fake) permanent surgery to change their skin-colour. The mother of the boys was so distraught with remaining dark that at one point during the interview, she confesses to putting actual chlorine bleach on her skin.

At the end of all this, I feel that one thing remains certain:

No amount of bleach or beauty products will ever get this blemish of self-hate and internalized racism out of our past, present or future.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

~ by davitacuttita on September 24, 2009.

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