I first became aware of skin lightening when searching for hair-care products in my local cosmetics shop. Sandwiched amongst jars of coconut oil and tubs of hair relaxer, “skin-whitening”, “skin-brightening” and “skin-toning” products gleamed at me from neatly-stacked shelves; plastered with the faces of “fair-skinned” black and Asian women. Whether it be in Paks hair shop in Dalston, or Sheba’s hair shop in Peckham, wherever women of colour frequent for their beauty buys, skin-lightening products seem to follow. The skin lightening series was borne out of this realisation and the increasing protestations from other women of colour about the skin lightening industry that simply couldn’t be ignored.
In the run-up to the series we attended the first skin-lightening conference in the UK which aimed to highlight the dangers of the products to Public Health England and Trading Standards, picked up on the #UnfairAndLovely campaign, which was further explored in Halimah Manan’s excellent article for this series, and Eno Mfon, a gal-dem writer and illustrator, performed her spoken word piece “Check the Label” at gal-dem’s launch night back in September, which reminded us that colourism is still a massive issue for many women of colour.
“The poem developed from the fact that when I was younger I never really saw black women celebrating themselves”, Eno told me at the time, “I remember growing up and seeing my aunties getting lighter and lighter and then my mum just casually telling me that they lightened their skin. Me and my cousins and my friends – we didn’t realise the effect it was having on us until we got older. I really did not like the way I looked.”
The skin lightening industry is a subset of the beauty industry, which undeniably makes its money in large part from increasing women’s insecurities about their bodies. However, what we tried to highlight throughout the skin lightening series was that skin lightening is more than an equivalent to “fake tan”, as Naomi Mabita put it in her excellent article which kicked off the series (and alsokicked up a big fuss surrounding a picture of Emma Watson fronting a skin-whitening brand, Blanc Expert).
With our focuses on the dangers of illegal products that contain mercury and hydroquinone, Atong Atem’s brilliant piece on colourism in the black community, Isha Sohal’s important reflection on why she wanted to be lighter-skinned when she was growing up, and Paula Akpan’s recognition of the deceptive marketing terminology skin-lightening brands use, we tried to cover as many bases as we could.