Bernie Searle

Skin lightening and the politics of beauty: Field notes from an ICA lecture

Skin lightening is a global phenomenon adopted mostly by women. Originally, all our skins fulfilled a physical function, but over time lighter skin amassed absurd and unjust political power. Google search “skin-lightening” and dozens of sites with natural DIY bleaching methods appear. Micheal Jackson is an infamous example of this controversial beauty treatment and even stars like Nicki Minaj, Rihanna and Beyoncé have been accused of it. 

Recently, rapper Lil Kim was castigated for an Instagram selfie which purportedly shows her with a lighter complexion. The contention is that whether or not a personal choice, as a public figure, she is succumbing to white standards of beauty. Although, to be fair to celebrities, at times tabloid sensationalism and Photoshop make it challenging to discern the truth. 

Last week as part of their Medical Humanities lecture series, the Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) invited molecular biologist Lester Davids, acclaimed artist Berni Searle and psychology lecturer Shose Kessi to reflect on skin lightening techniques, creative interventions into historical stereotyping and black UCT students’ experiences of being in a hetronormative patriarchal white space. Here’s a summary of what was said by Lester Davids and Berni Searle. 

Bernie Searle

From the ‘Colour Me’ series by Berni Searle

Lester Davids: 

The human body is 6 million years old and we’ve been piercing, tattooing, scarring and embellishing it for years. Our skin is the canvas of life, our largest organ, and describes a plethora of emotions. As a species it defines us. Skin is tough and elastic and we use it to express ourselves aesthetically and culturally. 

Biologically speaking, to classify someone on the basis of race is incorrect and yet, even our constitution proclaims that “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth”. 

We’re so used to classifying people on their basis of their skin colour, but biologically all races have the same number of melanoclytes (the cells responsible for producing pigment). It’s a complete myth that those with darker complexions have more melanoclytes. American anthropologist and paleobiologist Nina G. Jablonksi has written that races don’t exist and are merely social constructs. 

In a clinical sense, skin lighteners are useful, especially for patients with Vitiglio, Ephelides, Lentigo and Melasma, and can work well in a progressive and controlled way, but the practice becomes dangerous when creams are purchased on the black market. 

The research that Lester has done revealed that in South Africa, 35% of women practice skin lightening, which is still less than Nigeria (77%) and Togo (59%) but more than Mali (25%) and Senegal (27%). Of the 29 different creams he collected from station markets around the Western Cape, many contained mercury which has been banned in cosmetic production in South Africa since the 1980s. A few women he interviewed claimed that a lighter skin was perceived to be more beautiful, but Lester intoned that “A healthy skin is a beautiful skin. We need to treat our skins with respect because they need to last”. 

While Lester has no issue with the practice, his concern is over the damaging and dangerous side effects of using sub-par products and the pressure popular press places on women. He says we need to change our perceptions of self-image through education and that a watchdog organisation must be formed to keep a tab on cosmetic agencies. 

Bernie Searle

‘Lament-II’ from the ‘Lament’ series by Berni Searle

Bernie Searle: 

In her master’s statement Bernie wrote “As an artist…although I don’t know who I am…problems arise because my identity has been made for me”. Her earlier work, the Colour Me series, explores the tensions between apartheid racial categories and the effort to resist easy identification. Often, to understand who we are and where we come from, we repeat monolithic stories of belonging and these essentializing narratives solidify a fixed identity. 

Bernie asserts that identity isn’t static but open to association, alliances, circumstance and context and that essentializing deteriorates into harmful stereotypes. She began practicing art during a time in South African history where people were beginning to explore more personal aspects of themselves. 

With a heritage from Saudi Arabia, the UK and Mauritius, Bernie realised that one way to tentatively connect with her history was through food because it had a trajectory she could trace and was something she immediately identified with. Her Colour Me series is a collection of prints and installations whereby she covered her body with spices such as paprika, turmeric, ground cloves and pea flower. Doing this she presented herself in an imaginary way that she could control and resisted the ‘coloured’ labels imposed on her. 

“My body had not been part of South African discourse. There was an absence of black female bodies in South African visual culture…and there were lots of contestations about who could represent who…this was my resistance to quantification,” she said. 

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Bernie Searle

From the ‘Colour Me’ series by Berni Searle

Image credits: Colour Me series taken from the Brooklyn Museum and Paris Photo.

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