During my first foray into the daunting aisles of Sephora, I spent quite a bit of money. Enough, in fact, that I could choose any of a small selection of sample items with my newly accrued reward points.
I can’t remember all of the exact products that were available, because a single product stuck out to me above the rest: a serum purporting to lighten dark spots in one week, known to anyone darker than a paper bag to mean that it was a skin bleach.
I looked at it, and then at my hands, their scars still dark and completely unaided by Mederma and the weird onion potion that I’d slaved over a stove making. My somewhat desperate curiosity roared over the tutting of my inner Self-Respect voice that was trying to prudently remind me that "pigment-lightening serum” was fancy marketing glamour for “skin-bleaching gel” and that I’d feel like a traitor to my own cause for getting it.
I, however, was having none of that good-sensed warning and picked it up anyway. At least I didn’t purchase it with my own money, right?
Getting it home, I started my regimen: Apply the serum to one hand, every evening for a week, and see how, or if, my scars change. I had been assured and reassured that the product would only lighten the areas of hyperpigmentation and not my entire hand, which was advice I was counting on being true. While I’m still not a huge fan of how scarred my hands are, no matter how totally badass they look, I’m even less a fan of making myself lighter.
A week went by, and I did notice a change in my hand. My scars, indeed, did get lighter, but so did the skin around them. In a spoiler alert to no one, my inner voice had been right all along. This stuff was skin bleach.
I stopped using it immediately, but for some reason I have yet to throw it away. It now sits in my bathroom, glaring out from under a small blanket of dust to remind me of my ethical failings; that into this most Black is Beautiful of households, I, Lauren, introduced a skin bleach.
For women of color, especially we brown ones, this is a big deal. It may seem equivalent to tanning on its surface, but they’re quite different in application and context. While both practices are done to closer adhere to a particular image of beauty and class--which is something that cannot and should not be ignored--colorism in relation to skin bleaching carries with it a far greater impact.
Take, for instance, the findings of the U.S Equal Employment Commission:
A recent study conducted by a Vanderbilt University professor “found that those with lighter skin earn on average 8 to 15 percent more than immigrants with the darkest skin tone -- even when taking into account education and language proficiency. This trend continued even when comparing people of the same race or ethnicity.”  Similarly, a 2006 University of Georgia survey revealed that a light-skinned Black male with only a Bachelor's degree and basic work experience would be preferred over a dark-skinned Black male with an MBA and past managerial positions. However, in the case of Black female applicants seeking a job, “the more qualified or experienced darker-skinned woman got it, but if the qualifications were identical, the lighter-skinned woman was preferred."
When darker people of color choose to bleach, it’s not only because it’s the only way we’re told that we can be beautiful. Lighter skin carries with it more opportunities and brighter futures--no pun intended--which makes the sale of such serums and creams almost insidious.
All of this is even ignoring how blatantly women of color across the board are lightened in the media, from Lupita Nyong’o and Gabourey Sidibe to M.I.A. The prevailing notion with our media treatment is that lighter is better, and it has a deleterious effect on the self-esteem of young dark girls and grown women alike.
It took me a while to fall in love with my beautiful, dark skin because of the messages swirling around me that subtly, or overtly in some cases, reinforced the notion that it was dirty, ugly, malignant and undesirable. I had to claw my way out of a well of self-hatred over the course of years to get where I am now, as have many other black and brown women.
That products like these still exist leaves me both angered and troubled, because, while many of them are bleaching agents in the guise of “spot correctors” and “tone eveners,” it’s still understandable to want to fade dark spots, right?
Have you ever used lightening creams, or know someone who has? Are there any that really do just fade scars and age spots without affecting the rest of the skin?