Paradoxes of Pigmentation


L-R: Nina Simone, Zoe Saldana

by Nina Jablonski

Hardly a week goes by that there isn’t a scandal about skin colour. Most recently it was the story about the casting of the relatively light-skinned actor, Zoe Saldana, to play the part of the late dark-skinned singer, Nina Simone. Bloggers agreed that Saldana was preferred by Hollywood filmmakers because, in short, more melanin meant less money. The irony of this has not been lost on anyone familiar with the details of Simone’s life. She sang and demonstrated her commitment to civil rights through the heat of the 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, and she had dark skin that had never been bleached. Except posthumously.

Far from the bright lights of Holly/Bolly, many people think that their own dark skin casts a shadow over their lives. They sense that people think less of them because of it, and that somehow their skin is literally a black mark against them when they seek a job or a marriage partner. Why does skin colour matter so much, and why – in light of myriad anti-colour discrimination laws now on the books around the world – does it appear to matter as much or more today than it did at the height of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements a half century ago?

At the outset, recall that we are primates, and as such are obsessed with everything visual. We are observant, imitative and status-conscious too; and assess the appearance of others consciously and unconsciously as we decide what to do from one moment to the next. Our brains expend great cognitive effort in the interpretation of faces, and we instantaneously assess information about a person’s age, health, mood, intention and attractiveness as we scan their face. Our perceptions of attractiveness are also affected by social factors. We are inordinately influenced by our peers, especially as adolescents, because we seek acceptance and fear rejection. At the same time we also become highly conscious of social position, and seek to emulate individuals who we perceive as having higher status. Social anxiety about peer evaluation often persists through adulthood, with the tendency to imitate being more pronounced in women than in men. Looking or acting like someone with high status confers status by proxy.

Our urge to imitate people of higher social status or greater popularity has deep evolutionary roots. It has only been in the last few thousand years, however, that widely circulated and privileged images – on coins, stamps, photographs and in digital images – have given us opportunities to imitate people we have never seen. Images of “attractive” people and celebrities are electronically captured and rapidly propagated by the media, cell phone, social media and advertising. This highly dynamic and ever-growing reservoir of visual imagery affects how people translate perceptions of appearance into judgements. From these they develop personal aspirations of appearance. People are suggestible. Those who are more sensitive to peer pressure and status than others will be more likely to want to imitate the look of an ideal of popularity or success.

Aishwarya Rai in a L’Oréal advertisement for whitening cream

In many parts of the world today as well as in the past, having lighter skin has been associated with perceived higher social status, success and happiness, and people have gone to great lengths to achieve it. To the most suggestible people, the knowledge that a preference for lightness is associated with higher status elsewhere is sufficient to promote the desire for skin lightening and sales of lightening products. Skin lightening was undertaken widely in eastern Asia and in western Europe from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, when the public display of white skin took on great social importance. But lightness of complexion acquired new meanings and enhanced value as European colonies in the Americas prospered through the labour of imported, dark-skinned slaves. By the twentieth century, the production of skin-lightening compounds became sophisticated, commercialized and highly profitable.

Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century onward, recipes for skin-lightening preparations made from combinations of mercury or lead compounds and other ingredients were developed independently east Asian and Europe, and became central to the beauty routines of men and women of the upper classes. The popularity of white makeup and lightening preparations increased despite the fact that sustained use had toxic and sometimes fatal side-effects and often produced withered faces, rotting teeth and stinking breath. Skin lighteners and lightening cosmetics took on different roles when they were adopted by people with dark skin, especially by the descendants of former slaves in the New World and by others who experienced discrimination because of dark colour. To some, these products were agents of social elevation and personal transformation, but to others, they were instruments of subjugation that diminished the value of dark skin and reinforced the self-doubt associated with it.

Commercial development, production and marketing of skin-bleaching products began in the United States after the American Civil War, as segregationist “Jim Crow laws” restricted the opportunities and prospects of former slaves, especially in the South. The new cosmetic preparations promised relief from discrimination along with social advancement. Through the first half of the twentieth century, the “bleaching syndrome” had a strong hold on African-American culture. Although the market for skin lighteners and bleaches waned in the 1960s and 1970s, the industry and ideology did not disappear. They changed with the times, created new language for promotion, and migrated into profitable new markets, including those overseas. Promoted as “brightening” agents rather than bleaches, skin lighteners received boosts from the popularity of light-skinned African-American celebrities whose complexions—whether produced by chemical bleaching or sun avoidance—were widely admired.

Markets for skin lighteners expanded South Africa, the Caribbean, India and East Asia, fueled by the real and perceived social benefits of lighter skin and the marketing expertise of multinational cosmetics companies. In all of these places, advertising focuses mainly on suggestible young adults eager to improve their status and prospects by looking more like people of acknowledged higher status who have lighter skin. And men are seeking lightness in increasing numbers too, especially in India. For those men in India who don’t want to fuss with messy creams, a “cybercream” is available for treatment of Facebook profile pictures.

Users of skin lighteners are usually unaware of the underlying, pernicious social forces that have influenced their decision to change their skin tone. They simply want to get a better job or marry someone with more money or higher status. But the dominant culture sets and perpetuates the standards of physical attractiveness, and these standards are overwhelmingly Euro-American and biased toward light skin. Media-driven messages emphasizing the beauty and success associated with light skin amplify existing societal preferences and create a vicious cycle of aspiration to an unattainable ideal.

Mama Africa whitening cream

Although pale skin has been prized and people have been willing to risk illness and disfigurement to obtain it, many people born with light skin have strived to become darker. For the last fifty years, aspirations for lightness among the dark-skinned have competed with the desire for darkness among the light-skinned. This bizarre paradox would be comical if it hadn’t ruined so many lives. Tanned skin became fashionable and glamorous among light-skinned Europeans and Americans in the mid-twentieth-century. The popularity of recreational sunbathing and tanning skyrocketed after photos of Brigitte Bardot on the beach were published and widely circulated.

Bardot epitomized the freedom of the era by flouting traditions of modesty and sun avoidance. Her suntan was not a farmer’s tan, but the seamless tan of a woman of leisure. It announced that she controlled her own body and wasn’t confined within the social norms of past eras. Bardot’s youthful and sexy look inspired thousands to follow her example and, before long, magazines and movies were filled with tanned celebrities of both sexes. A year-round tan became synonymous with a life of leisure and privilege, and sex appeal.

Fads catch on when many people can follow them easily without spending a lot of money, and they endure with continued social reinforcement of behavior. In the 1960s and 1970s, getting a tan didn’t require a trip to the French Riviera: it could be achieved in the backyard. It imparted a sense of well-being and glamour, and it was cheap. Tanning, or at least having a tanned look, was also readily reinforced by feedback from friends and family, who complimented bronzed beach-combers on their “healthy” good looks. Deep tanning became very popular in Europe and the Americas from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, before the risks of skin cancer from sun exposure were widely known. Although lengthy bouts of outdoor tanning are less common today, many people don’t think they’ve really been on holiday unless they have the tan to prove it. Tanning salons – some of the most peculiar establishments in the history of humankind – arose in the U.S. in the 1980s to cater to those who could not make it to the beach or who want to get a head-start on their skin cancer by “pre-tanning” before a holiday.

Positive images of tanned people continued to grace video screens and magazines through the 1990s even as the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure became more widely known. Popular reaction to skin cancer risk from sun exposure was predictable. Many people used more sunscreen or sun protection and avoided intense sun exposure. Others did not change their behavior because a “natural tan” felt too good, “looked better,” and brought compliments and approval.

Between 1988 and 2007, indoor tanning among young adults in the United States increased from 1 percent to 27 percent, driven in part by propagation of images of tanned “celebrities” circulated widely in the print and electronic media. Beginning in the 1990s, many people began turning to sunless tanning agents to compensate for the lost glow and minimize their risk of skin cancer. This ushered in the era of the bad fake tan and light-skinned people looking like they had been treated with deck stain. There is little margin for error when the social calculus behind the most desirable level of artificial tan goes wrong. The last thing that most light-skinned people want to look like is a naturally dark-skinned person. This is the painful truth of this side of the paradox of pigmentation.

People can’t be stopped from wanting to change their looks in order to correct what they perceive to be deficiencies in their appearance, but we can do better at laying bare the fallacy of these deficiencies and the social forces behind the aspirations. Many perceived inadequacies of appearance – like having skin that is “too dark” – are rooted to social injustices of the past, while others spring from our perceived need to emulate those who are more popular of higher status. Bleached skin may temporarily relieve the immediate personal anxiety felt by the unempowered, insecure or self-conscious, but it ultimately reinforces the most sinister of social hierarchies. Nina Simone once said that, “Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.” Her meaning can be extended into an understanding of the enslavement of the senses and the unceasing pressure to attain a skin colour that will somehow make life better. How much anxiety could be spared then if we just put down the mirror?

About the Author:

Nina Jablonski is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color.