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Why Is Tanning Okay And Skin Lightening Not?

Naaila Khan

Remember Lil’ Kim? The OG of black woman hip hop who outrapped Biggie in the early 2000s? Well, if you relied on this selfie that she recently posted on Instagram as a memory cue, you probably won’t recollect entirely. Why? Because when compared to what she looked like at the start of her career in the 90s, she’s practically unrecognizable.

Quite obviously, extensive cosmetic facial surgery and aggressive skin bleaching have a lot to do with it (plus, she’s now blonde). The once ‘notorious’ K.I.M also admitted to not feeling “pretty enough” and having been cheated on by lovers with more “European looking” women, as reasons for her transformation. Also as expected, social media, especially #BlackTwitter, suddenly went berserk – some expressing disappointment at their old champion selling out, and some blaming it on internalized racism that rendered her a victim – and the butt of memes.

In the same vein, Azealia Banks also received flak from her fans for bleaching her skin, which the popstar chalked up to depression stemming from all the white women “with worse music” overtaking her. (And then went on a rant about Beyoncé’s Lemonade as “perpetuating that sad black female sufferance”, but that’s a story for another day.)

Coming to the point I’d like to make, whether or not her skin colour shift was a result of misogynoir or residual starry eyed-ness of our colonizers, why are we bashing Lil’ Kim up? What happened to personal choice, and more importantly, how is the other Kim (with the famous surname) endorsing tanning booths, the hottest thing at the same moment?

In short, ever thought about why skin lightening is so frowned upon, and tanning, which is the process of making your skin darker, total #beautygoals? And the overarching question (which has baffled some of us for generations): why is colour such a big deal anyway? We’ve played with colours since we were crawling, we wear colourful clothes, we love watching our world in LED (and HD), so why does the conversation shoot through the roof when it comes to manipulating the colour of our skin? Especially considering both tanning and bleaching could be equally hazardous (looking at you, C-word).

It’s funny how humans work: the Asians desire to be whiter while the Americans and Europeans aspire to achieve that perfect bronze; white women are said to be ‘pasty’ and black women are compelled to bleach; the ideal man is ‘tall, dark, handsome’ but the perfect woman (going by our matrimonial ads, at least) is always ‘thin, tall, fair’. ‘Exotic’ basically implies you’re a) from a faraway land and b) as unfamiliar as the white-plumed antbird; and when you’re a dark-skinned model/actress, you’re suddenly considered a ‘dusky’ beauty.

If we’re digging deep into this grass-is-greener syndrome, it’ll probably lead you to its roots in history: While being pallor indicated noble life and so was held in high esteem in the pre-industrial revolution millennia (women of the Elizabethan era ingested arsenic wafers and used whitening products containing ceruse, lye, and ammonia – basically poisoned themselves to look white), tanning only became chic when Coco Chanel unintentionally alighted all golden brown from a sailing trip to Cannes where she caught too much sun, circa 1923. She might have pretty much invented sunbathing, because soon, Briton women were smearing their legs with Bovril to create the illusion of a tan, and by the time they were well into the 70s, Coppertone was a household name, and the sunbed was reintroduced as a quick way of bronzing. By 2000, a good half of Britons said returning with a tan was pretty much their primary reason to holiday!


Takeaway? Our skin colour bias is probably rooted in our history. Humans are amusing creatures – show us a pair of slides on a regular store’s rack, and we won’t care much for it except in passing, but slap Rihanna’s name on them, make them fur and triple the price, and we’ll happily lap it up while breaking Google in the process (fine, you can look at me, because guilty as charged).

But should we let our basest factory setting humiliate someone else’s right to personal choice? Certainly not. It’s probably time we noticed that we’re simply entire generations now conditioned that light is cool and dark is not – or the other way round – and it’s our conscious, full time job to triumph over that. Because think about it: Lil’ Kim swapping her skin colour for a new one is basically as good or bad as that Instagram filter you just used so you wouldn’t look “so chalky” or “so dull” or “so basic”.

And just like they’ve always done, the sellers are always going to sell to us – they’ll please us with their Photoshopped magazine covers and marketing strategies and consumer psychologies – but let’s not get carried away, shall we? Let Lil’ Kim be toffee-skinned or white washed or a goddamn Smurf for all she wants – it’s her body, let’s let her decide for herself. Let's keep it cute. 




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