Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Colour Question

A landmark US study in 2011 found that light-skinned black women receive shorter prison sentences than dark-skinned black women. In 2015, another study found that white interviewers regarded light-skinned black and Hispanic job applicants as more intelligent than darker-skinned interviewees with the same qualifications. Cynthia Sims, of Southern Illinois University, found a gap in career opportunities between dark- and light-skinned women in India, while a Seattle University study by Sonora Jha and Mara Adelman found that the chances for a dark-skinned Indian woman dating online were “nonexistent”. Studies have consistently shown that in the competitive market for jobs and marriage, lighter skin has advantages. And now, in the digital age, accessing the products and know-how to gain that advantage has never been easier.

Not all products that purport to lighten the skin are illegal, but many creams from outside the EU contain chemicals banned under safety regulations. These include mercury and hydroquinone – which with prolonged use are linked to poisoning, skin damage and liver and kidney malfunction – and corticosteroids, which in the UK are prescription-only products. Misuse of corticosteroid creams is associated with thinning of the skin, an increased chance of skin cancer and, counterintuitively, darkening of the skin.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many people are using skin-lighteners – legal or otherwise – in the UK, but around the world, business is booming. In 2017, the global skin-lightening industry was worth $4.8bn (£3.4bn), and it is projected to grow to $8.9bn by 2027, fuelled by a growing middle class in the Asia-Pacific region. Skin-lightening products include creams, scrubs, pills and even injections designed to slow the production of melanin. Many of these are created by pharmaceutical giants such as Unilever, Proctor and Gamble and L’Oreal and come with massive marketing budgets. A World Health Organization study found that 40% of Chinese women regularly use skin-lightening creams. That number is 61% in India and 77% in Nigeria. It stands to reason that diaspora communities will be influenced.

“People used to say skin ‘bleaching’, but it’s such a loaded term now. Instead, people use the neutral ‘lightening’, and increasingly common is the appetising ‘brightening’, which was pushed heavily by the major  companies.”  says Steve Garner, the head of criminology and sociology at Birmingham City University, who last year undertook the first British sociological study into skin-lightening.


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