L.M. Thomas: Beneath the Surface. A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners

Beneath the Surface. A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners

Thomas, Lynn M.
Theory in Forms
Anzahl Seiten
368 S.
$ 28.95 (paperback)
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Stephanie Lämmert, Forschungsbereich Geschichte der Gefühle, Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung Berlin

Lynn Thomas’ new book Beneath the Surface, on the appeal of skin lighteners in South Africa, is a timely offering. We need this book more than ever in the face of growing populist and racist regimes in many places worldwide, but also at a time where the Black Lives Matter movement is growing globally and where white privilege, structural and institutional racism, and the colonial legacy of knowledge production is beginning to be discussed more seriously (although never sufficiently).

Beneath the Surface is a rich study of skin lighteners in South Africa that encompasses US American and East African histories, tracing the changing meanings of skin color in South Africa. Thomas links the appeal of skin lighteners and the history of their consumption and production to the politics of beauty, racial politics, and global capitalism, indeed to “knotty political and conceptual issues (…) of self-expression versus social control, informed choice versus false consciousness, and politics versus aesthetics” (p. 3). Thomas’ book is therefore much more than a nuanced history of the neglected topic of skin lightening in Africa. It is also a history of the racialization of bodies, and of the political elasticity of concepts of race and colorism and their changing mores throughout the twentieth century; it is a history of consumer capitalism, and a history that takes serious the affective. In short, Beneath the Surface situates skin lightening as a “site of disruptive politics and aesthetic expression” (p. 19). It is also the first study that chronicles the history of opposition to skin lighteners.

Thomas’ argument derives from her approach of a layered history, that “reconstructs sedimented meanings and compounded politics” and “requires attention to overlapping and, at times, contradictory dynamics” (p. 3). South Africans’ “everyday experiences of skin color have been produced through institutions of slavery, capitalism, visual media, techno-medical innovations, and protest politics” (p. 2). This history explains why and how South Africans used skin lighteners as ‘technologies of visibility’ that “simultaneously […] challenge[d] and entrench[ed] existing racial and gender hierarchies” (p. 21). The use of skin lighteners in South Africa, Thomas argues, cannot be reduced to the influence of institutional racism and colorism under colonial rule and Apartheid, even though this plays a painful and central role. Pre-colonial conceptions of feminine beauty included practices of skin brightening and smoothening, fertile ground for the later adoption of chemical skin lightening. Furthermore, consumer capitalism created the incentive for ‘affective consumption’ – the desire to consume a product, which would make one feel modern, proud, or beautiful. Yet manufacturers’ messages were not only tailored for just local South African use, but also built on transnational ideas about respectability and race.

Beneath the Surface is structured in six chapters. The first chapter discusses pre-colonial practices of feminine beauty, such as premarital seclusion and brightening or lightening practices which were tied to gendered and generational beauty ideals, privileging ritual (not racial) whiteness. These precolonial procedures later became intricately entangled with skin lighteners introduced during the colonial era by settlers, who sought ways to distinguish themselves from ‘native’ South Africans. In the twentieth century, such practices were increasingly bound up with the political racialization of bodies.

As chapter two suggests, there was great ambiguity attributed to the consumers of skin lighteners and cosmetics. While on the one hand, Black South African ‘modern girls’1 understood cosmetics and skin-lightening products as a tool to achieve ‘racial uplift’ in inter-war South Africa, others considered such beauty practices a racial betrayal, or a contestation of Black Christian middle class respectability. Thomas shows that similar debates took place in the US. The marketing of Black American beauty products in South Africa was linked to concerns about racial respectability through the “transatlantic circulation of products, people, and new print and visual media” (p. 70). Modern skin lighteners, whether used to ‘pass the color line’ or as tools of ‘looking good’, “played into a subtle calculus of color, beauty and status that nonetheless had significant material consequences” (p. 74).

In a book published in the same year, Saidiya Hartman suggests that, far from being a white European invention, the ‘modern girl’ or flapper herself was a “pale imitation of the ghetto girl” of early twentieth century Black America.2 This could point towards fruitful future research on the intersections between the figure of the modern girl and the histories of Black America. But Thomas takes the American connection seriously in other ways. She shows that the early cosmetic skin lighteners were American products, marketed using American models and by American salespeople, although, contrary to the US, not by Black women but white men. Local manufacturers began to produce skin lighteners in South Africa only in the 1930s and 1940s, as the third chapter reveals. Black South Africans became the targeted consumers of a white local industry, which soon thrived thanks to Black consumption. This coincided with the growing political disenfranchisement of Black South Africans. Color consciousness grew from the concrete material and political advantages of being read as ‘Coloured’ instead of ‘Bantu’ and rested on small but important distinctions in, among other things, skin color and tone.

Chapter four examines the boom years of skin lighteners from the late 1940s to the 1970s through the lens of visual media and consumer capitalism. The aesthetic of magazines “privileged light-colored skin and cultivated social fantasies of individual fame and success” (p. 149). This heightened the status of skin lighteners, as “tools for broader recognition and achieving modern girl success” (pp. 127-128), while the technical dependence on lighting and “aesthetic affinity for lightness” in photography (p. 136) created a perceived need among models to consume skin lightening products. Only the introduction of color photography in South Africa in the early 1960s altered this aesthetic, enabling the representation of a more nuanced palette of complexions. Drum’s white owner, Jim Bailey, insisted on presenting “racially ambiguous” women as cover girls: women who were “coloured, preferably Africanish” but “not too light skinned” (p. 120). This decision both contested and confirmed the racial logic of Apartheid. By showing that simple racial classifications were impossible, it revealed the absurd logic of race. On the other hand, the general preference of lighter complexions rested on white supremacist beauty ideals and their transnational circulation. Thomas here convincingly demonstrates the entanglements between political and racial hierarchies and the social fantasies imbricated in the capitalist message about individual success through the ‘body’s malleability’.

Chapter five chronicles the resistance to skin lighteners in the 1960s and 1970s on both medical and political grounds. While Civil rights and Black Power activists tied skin lighting to racial shame, in Kenya and Tanzania resistance to skin lightening took on a nationalist purpose in the 1970s. Rejecting skin lighteners, along with miniskirts, wigs, and ‘tight male trousers’ was presented as integral to personal and national liberation by East African nationalist leaders. Medical research, meanwhile, focused on the poisoning effects of chemical agents such as mercury and later, hydroquinone, rarely acknowledging the political fact that the affected bodies were predominantly brown and black ones. The fascinating point here is that these two lines of criticism never converged. This would change in South Africa from the late 1970s on.

The final chapter traces the history of Black Consciousness thought and anti-racist opposition to Apartheid, and its implication for the consumption of and legislation regarding skin lighteners in South Africa. The Black Consciousness movement grew out of the South African Student Organisation (SASO), an all-black group centered around Steve Biko that was influenced by civil rights and Black Power activists from across the Atlantic. For SASO activists, skin lighteners “embodied the pernicious intertwining of racism and capitalism” (p. 197). In the mid-1970s, condemning skin lighteners was seen as an integral step towards political awareness. Beginning in the 1980s, a larger coalition of dermatologists and other medical researchers, as well as white leftist anti-Apartheid activists who self-righteously appropriated the debate about skin lighteners and racial shame, joined the call for a ban on skin-lightening products. But, even after the coalition’s success in 1990 in pressuring the South African government to introduce the world’s first and most extensive legislation on skin lighteners, their appeal did not disappear.

Poor working class women in South Africa especially could not afford to relinquish such products. It is here that I found Beneath the Surface most powerful, in addressing the complex and messy mix of political moralism, the impact of white supremacist beauty ideals, and the pressures of everyday survival among poor Black South African women. In this regard, Thomas quotes South African sociologist and former anti-Apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele who draws on interviews with women consumers of skin lighteners. Ramphele writes, “the material benefits of being ‘slightly coloured’, compared to being proudly African, are too real for those at the lower socio-economic strata to ignore” (cited on p. 202). Racism and colorism are important aspects to address if we want to understand the appeal of and the opposition to skin lighteners, but so are the entangled histories of class, gender, and labor. The approach of a layered history painfully reveals the contradictory politics of capitalism, racism, and (Black) hegemonic masculinity.

These contradictions are very real still today, almost three decades after the end of Apartheid. Despite their health dangers and political condemnations, skin lighteners remain a highly profitable enterprise. While a relatively safe practice for the affluent, unequal access to safe skin lighteners for the poor entrenches structural inequalities. Beneath the Surface is a nuanced book, based on rich source material and careful analysis. Through her layered history approach, Thomas unearths the various complex and overlapping formations which play(ed) into a South African woman’s decision to use or condemn skin lighteners, or to do both at different times. I recommend this book to anyone interested in African history and beyond. Lynn Thomas was surprised at first by the American connections she found in her research, having instead expected South Asian commercial networks to play a bigger role. It is precisely the American connection, however, which places Beneath the Surface at the crossroads between Black Studies and African Studies. This is a welcome invitation to bridge the still-wide gap between the two.

1 Alys Eve Weinbaum / Lynn M. Thomas / Priti Ramamurthy / Uta G. Poiger / Madeleine Yue Dong (eds.), The Modern Girl around the World. Consumption, Modernity and Globalization, Durham 2008.
2 Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals, New York 2019, p. XV.

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