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Race & Demographics

Embodied: The Social Politics of Pigment

Around the world, skin-lightening agents are a billion-dollar industry. Colorism and discrimination are major factors.

In the U.S. as well as around the world, skin color has long been associated with social perceptions of beauty, intellect and class. Studies have shown that many perceive lighter skin as indicative of higher intelligence. Research also suggests that those with darker skin experience higher instances of criminalization

When these perceptions are internalized, they may lead people to seek out procedures and products that claim to be able to lighten their skin. In this segment of Embodied, host Anita Rao talks to Priya Rao, executive editor of Glossy and host of “Unfair,” a podcast about the global skin-lightening industry; Alicia D. Williams, a teacher based in Charlotte and author of the young adult novel, “Genesis Begins Again”; and Dr. Nkanyezi Ferguson, dermatologic surgeon and director of the Ethnic Skin Care Clinic at The University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine.

Motivations For Skin-Lightening Go Beyond Aesthetics

The skin-lightening industry isn’t a lucrative market simply because people around the world believe that light skin is more attractive. There are also perceived social and cultural benefits to skin lightening, notes Rao. “People are using these products so that they appear more worthy in the European [or] white mindset. And I think what we're seeing is that, you know, in India and Asia and China, and even in Africa, you know, people [who pursue skin-lightening] think that if they have lighter skin, they can get a job, they can get a husband [and] they can get their family out of poverty.”

Skin Color Awareness Begins In Early Childhood

While she was working as an assistant in a kindergarten classroom, Alicia D. Williams began to notice that students had misperceptions about their own skin tones. “The schools I was working in had diverse crayons — skin tone crayons — and our brown and Black children, [regardless of] cultural background, did not choose the skin tone crayon that matched them,” she recalls. “Now, our white children would even go so far to choose a brown crayon to draw their parents because they saw them as tan. But our Black and brown children would not choose their skin tone. [By] the middle of the school year, we got them to choose the skin tone crayon, but they would shade it in very lightly … And by the end of the year, we got them to press in.”

Abuse Of Skin Lightening Agents Can Be Very Dangerous

Chemicals that have the effect of altering skin tone can be used in medically sound ways, under the supervision of a healthcare professional, says Dr. Nkanyenzi Ferguson. But it’s important to note that medications like hydroquinone can create long-term damage when misused. “These medications like hydroquinone are not necessarily benign medications,” she notes. “They can cause skin irritation and rashes, excessive skin lightening and actually have paradoxical effects and cause darkening of the skin that can be more permanent and very difficult to get rid of.”

She says of another drug becoming more popular for its ability to “lighten” skin, intravenous glutathione: “The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any injectable drugs for skin whitening or skin lightening. And so the use of intravenous [drugs] for off-label purposes of skin lightening is highly controversial and carries with it considerable safety risk. And so this IV administration can seriously affect important organ systems like your neurologic system, kidney, liver organ systems, and [it] sometimes can result in serious skin reactions.”

Editor's Note: An on-air reference to "P and G" or Proctor and Gamble as a company that divested from selling skin-lightening creams was cited mistakenly. The correct company is Johnson and Johnson

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