Goths use it too!

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The previous post on whitening creams has been cross-posted on 2 facebook walls (YAFA and CFC) and Twitter. The responses have been enlightening (pun definitely intended), and I thank those who contributed. I also thank Jia and Tove for their particular interest and support, as well as Angela, Hannah and Sophie who discussed this topic with me.

One of the very interesting topics that came up was another use for these whitening creams. In my ignorance, I had not known that these were also being used by Goths. There were at least two accounts of this happening, and I can only suppose that these are not isolated incidents. This indeed is a fascinating phenomenon. However, I would still argue that there is a fundamental difference between the two uses.

I think that the following is a good analogy: comparing the two uses of skin whiteners is like comparing body art to genital mutilation. Body art and genital mutilation are both culturally founded and locally accepted. These practices can be quite similar. If we were to be strictly pluralistic, we would accept both practices as cultural heritage. However, one is based on voluntary self-expression and the other is involuntary oppression.

Similarly, whilst the act of whitening one’s skin is the same, the meaning is completely different, even polar opposite. Goth culture is an alternative culture, and skin whitening is a part of a rejection of mainstream culture. In contrast, for Asian women, skin whitening is a desperate attempt to participate in mainstream culture.

Even in India, Korea, Philippines, Western cultural hegemony is evident. Western countries are major exporters of cultural materials, and these are more numerous and astronomically better funded than locally produced materials. This state of affairs is exacerbated by local producers also put a premium on whiteness in response.

My experience is in Korea and New Zealand. Korean cinemas are filled with Hollywood blockbusters – there would be even more, if it wasn’t for the quota. Flipping through Korean women’s magazines, I found that although marketing is targeted towards Korean women, the models are white or photoshopped white. For those of you who have not had the experience, I cannot stress enough that it is abundantly clear that whiteness is the ideal, whether one is born with it or not.

New Zealand is similar, though there are significantly differences. Majority of women here are, in fact, white. However, beauty is still more associated with whiteness and portrayals of people of colour are more often in problem contexts, such as vaccinations or drunk driving. One striking example that Tove found last year was a Peter Alexander poster that was displayed in the window of the High Street branch. There was a white female model posing as Snow White, surrounded by black children. Let us guess who we were meant to aspire to be or to have. If there is an iota of doubt, keep in mind that this store does not sell children’s clothes.

Going back to the issue of skin whiteners, take a look at the pictures below. Mirza is an ambassador of The Body Shop. One picture is an advertisement for The Body Shop and the other is Mirza in real life.

The fact is, vast majority of consumers of skin whiteners are women of colour. This is most clear in marketing, which is almost solely targeted towards women of colour. There is a reason as to why The Body Shop’s Shiso range was not on the global website but heavily featured in the Asian ones, and more difficult to find on the Australian one.

The history of whitening creams is a tragic one in Asia. Many women have succumbed to cancer as a result. This is well documented, and I will refer you to one such article in Lancet, the preeminent medical journal: Women have Deadly Desire for Paler Skin in the Philippines (Easton, 1998). Women are so desperate that they have, and are continuing to, risk their lives to become whiter. And we cannot patronise these women, whose life prospects may well benefit from having whiter skin. This too is well documented, and I will refer you to a newspaper article: Skin Whitener Advertisement Labelled Racist (Sidner, 2009) [http://articles.cnn.com/2009-09-09/world/india.skin_1_skin-nivea-racist?_s=PM:WORLD].

I do not blame the users of such products, nor do I criticize the Goth culture. But given the historical and cultural context, I maintain that skin whiteners are symptoms and instruments of global Western imperialism/capitalism and its cultural hegemony. And as such, I do blame racism in the media, and marketing used by multinational conglomerates that sell and reap the benefits at the cost of confidence and lives of women.

I will be writing at least one more follow-up post on this topic, on another comparison that is often used between skin whiteners and tanning beds. I will be keeping an eye on the comments if anyone would like to make themselves heard.

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8 responses »

    • The Body Shop is not advertising this line in NZ to my knowledge, only selling them. I cannot decide whether this is more insidious or less.

  1. Mirza looks much more attractive in the second photo anyway….wait a minute – that wasn’t your point was it? :-p

    I don’t disagree with the modern context of skin whitening in many places being about internalized relations of power and I think the Mirza contrast shows it quite well – why would an otherwise attractive woman of colour do such a thing?

    I do sincerely wonder if it is still a “tool” of hegemony (ie a purposeful reinforcement) as opposed to a aberrant legacy that perhaps has more staying power in the marginalized communities than in the dominant one. Or maybe I am overly optimistic and projecting my values on to my fellow white people.

    Also, I cannot speak for the Korean context but in the case of Japan, white skin was always a symbol of elitism, especially after the Nara period. When Murasaki published the world’s first novel, well before there was any awareness of white people, she would have been engaging in such actions (as well as shaving off her eyebrows and redrawing them up further up on the forehead!). I understand Chinese elites were doing it well before whitey had even figured out the value of a written language. I guess my point is good luck trying to tell a Japanese woman that whiter skin is not necessarily attractive (as if our opinion mattered anyway!)- the cultural roots are deep in their own history and are probably reinforced, rather than imposed, by the traditional Western emphasis on whiteness. And they weren’t half hearted about it – at least with the “shiso” range then we are talking about a herb rather than bird shit:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uguisu_no_fun

    I don’t any think this goes against what you have said necessarily – but is a fascinating interaction of culture giving Japanese culture (and maybe other East Asian cultures although I know less about the traditional culture) at least some agency of its own.

    Great blog btw! I will come back, as really interesting topics and thoughts 🙂

    • I really appreciate that you commented, and not just for the blog. I think that you raise a really good objection to my thesis (damn it!), as well as a fresh perspective on the whole issue. I think that it really shows how diversity is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

      As you very rightly say, cultural self-determination and individual agency should always have a place in social justice activism. This is particularly pertinent to skin whitening because it is a transnational issue, and because it involves body politics.

      This objection has also been raised in the YAFA facebook wall, and will be the basis of the next instalment of this (totally unexpected) series, after tanning. However, seeing as this is a particularly chewy problem that affects basically all social justice activist movements, I do not dare expect that I will do any more than a very incomplete literature review.

      On a more personal note: my reaction to The Body Shop product is very split. I want to condemn it and run out and buy it all at the same time. I too think that it is unhelpful to blame the consumers (read: me).

      • Thanks for the reply and kind words! It could be viewed as an objection or just a different dynamic to be factored in. And such objections may not apply in all cultural contexts. I can tell from some of your other posts that you do give due respect to agency (individual and cultural) so I will look forward to your further reflections 🙂

        I understand what you mean about the Body Shop product. My wife is considered to be on the “darker” side of things in her culture (ie not as good). But despite my years of protestations to the contrary that being “dark” is not a bad thing and that I prefer it, I do know she would really like that product and it would make her happy if I brought it! Σ(´□`#)

  2. Very insightful post that extends your last. I see the whitening obsession, most notable in Asians (who put on creams, washes, use parasols, etc to an absurd degree), and the obsession with being tan (a mostly Caucasian thinking? Think Jersey Shore) to be opposites but of the same mentality. Both disturbing.. the desire to have what is not a natural. Our skin is a living map showing our age, history and one’s lifestyle.

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