In order to follow this exciting discourse please track and read the previous four posts…..
THE PUBLIC HEALTH DISCOURSE: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY …….contd
The public health campaign on skin bleaching is usually designed to both raise awareness about the dangers of bleaching and outlaw the sale of many skin-whitening products. In an interview about a campaign, Dr. Clive Andersen, a Jamaican dermatologist commented on the widespread practice of skin-bleaching in Jamaica. “It is very worrying because a lot of persons know that they are doing severe damage to the skin and persist in it. Some of this damage is reversible; a lot of it is not reversible. We need to realize that when we use these products, we are doing our skin immeasurable harm. There is no advantage to lightening our skin colour and at the same time damaging our skin. Beautiful skin really is healthy skin, whatever the colour” (“Campaign to Rid,” 2007).
This quotation exemplifies a common theme in public health campaigns: all women have the potential to be beautiful regardless of skin colour. As the dermatologist above states, “beautiful skin really is healthy skin.” This quotation highlights a shortcoming of the public health discourse – its focus on attitudes, as opposed to discrimination. Moreover, women are often the target of these campaigns because officials describe the problems as many women’s “misconceptions” about beauty. Women are under the false impression, they argue, that only light skin is beautiful and they go to “dangerous lengths” to achieve that look. But are women really under a “false impression?”
The public health discourse constructs women as “getting it wrong” by mistakenly believing that lighter skin is viewed as more beautiful and higher status. In fact, women have read their social cues exactly right, the skin-bleaching creams may be risky, but the pay offs are potentially high if lighter skin attracts a higher status husband or a better-paying job. Public health officials have not acknowledged the social and political reality of the benefits of light skin, so their message about “misconceptions” only makes women appear vain and pathological, instead of savvy, if risk-taking.
Although women bear the brunt of the health costs associated with bleaching (although some men bleach, too), women have been constructed as villains in this national discourse, at fault for succumbing to vain beliefs about beauty and risking their health to attain these standards.
A psychology professor from Uganda draws on the public health discourse in a similar fashion. When asked to comment on why people continue to use such dangerous bleaching products, he explained, “Such a person lacks self-esteem, has low self-efficacy and a perception that she or he looks ugly…It is common among women who are not educated,” Another psychologist in Uganda says, “Do something positive to counter [your low self-esteem]. Take advantage of the good parts of your body or talents”. The public health professionals in Jamaica and Uganda employ a discourse common among other government agencies in other nations. They argue that skin-bleaching can be combated largely by altering individuals’ attitudes. They assert that many people have misguided beliefs that light skin is better and higher in status, but that this is not actually true.
Urban, educated women in countries such as Nigeria, Jamaica, South Africa, and other post-colonial nations are engaged with the global job market and have an acute awareness of competing for jobs with people from other racial and ethnic groups. This global job competition is one motivating factor for skin-bleaching among this population. More exposed to beauty images from Europe and the U.S. than their more rural counterparts, the educated and urban women of these nations may be motivated to lighten their skin (with high-end cosmetics) in order to effectively compete with whites, Latinos, Asians and others from around the globe. Moreover, the elites of the African Diaspora also see the real benefits to light skin and Anglo features in the global job market. It is evident that leaders in business, politics, education, and even government are often lighter-skinned with more Anglo facial features. The reality of colour-based discrimination aka colourism is one motivating factor in the skin-lightening trend among elites.
Not only do public health officials avoid discussing light-skinned privilege, they also typically avoid acknowledging discrimination against dark-skinned men and women. Many descriptions still require a “clean” appearance which is often coded language for middle class and light-skinned or white. Practices like these drive the skin-bleaching market around the globe.
Finally, the public health discourse is remarkably similar to the beauty discourse of skin-bleaching in that it, too, focuses on the individual as the site of the problem. For example, the Public Health Partnership Forum in Zambia urged the government to ban the sale of skin-bleaching creams. The publicity secretary of the organization said, “skin-bleaching, being a psycho-socio and health problem, needs to be addressed with interventions aimed at changing the users’ perceptions of themselves and educating people on its consequences” (“Zambia: Ban,” 2010).
…….to be continued……watch out for the conclusion of this discuss tomorrow and a replay of the entire blog
- I will use the terms “skin-lightening,” “skin-whitening,” and “skin-bleaching” interchangeably throughout the paper. All three terms refer to the practice of chemically lightening the skin.
- I use the term “Global South” to refer to developing nations, or Third World nations. Although there is much diversity within the Global South, many are former European colonies and consequently have particular economic and cultural relationships with the West.