Imported Cosmetics and Colonial Crucibles: Pre-histories to the Twentieth-century Use of Commercial Skin Lighteners

Monday, 23 July, 2012 - 15:00

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This draft chapter is part of my current book project that examines the production, consumption, and opposition to skin lighteners in South Africa and tracks how these processes were intimately related to developments in Europe, Asia, East Africa, the broader southern Africa region, and particularly the United States. Although skin lighteners generated significant profits and controversy in all of these locales over the past century, they have garnered scarce historical attention. The overarching aim of this transregional and transnational history is to demonstrate how changing politics of gender, race, and consumption developed through the movement of people, ideas, and especially things between a range of locations. Much of my book is focused on the second half of the twentieth century when in South Africa skin lighteners became a mass consumed and, later, banned commodity. The book’s early chapters, however, take the story further back in time. The first chapter explores the deep history of skin color diversity in southern Africa, and examines indigenous ways of caring for and coloring the body that predated European colonization. This second chapter traces the history of whitening and lightening cosmetics in Europe, Asia, and the United States, and tracks how immigrants from those areas introduced these products and associated practices to southern Africa from the late seventeenth century through the 1920s. It also considers the two colonial crucibles – domestic service and mission schools – through which black southern Africans encountered them. Within the framework of my book, the purpose of this second chapter is to demonstrate the long and complex history of skin whiteners and lighteners among Asians and especially Europeans, and to suggest how and why these cosmetics eventually gained traction among some black South Africans.


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