Local Manufacturing of Skin Lighteners and Divergent Markets

Monday, 15 July, 2013 - 15:00

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This chapter documents the emergence of the local manufacturing of skin lighteners in South Africa, and the linked and shifting markets for these cosmetics in the United States and South Africa. Whereas in the early twentieth century, skin lighteners were commonplace cosmetics used by both white and black women in the United States, by the 1940s, they had become cosmetics primarily associated with black consumers. In South Africa too, the market for skin lighteners underwent a similar shift. The white South African press routinely carried ads for these products in the 1920s and 1930s but by the 1940s such ads were mainly found in newspapers and magazines targeting coloured and African consumers. White women’s disavowal was, in large part, fueled by the rise of tanned skin as the embodiment of a healthy and leisure-filled lifestyle. In addition, growing concerns over the ill-health effects of mercury and the FDA’s regulation of it, beginning in the late 1930s, persuaded some consumers to stop using these cosmetics. For many black women and perhaps men, though, untanned or lighter colored skin continued to signal the privileged avoidance of outdoor labor and the possibility of improving one’s place within racial orders insidiously calibrated according to minute differences in skin color. Stymied by white consumers’ preference for imported cosmetics, a number of South African manufacturers saw commercial opportunity in directing their attention to black consumers and the marketing of skin lighteners. Much of the evidence for these activities comes from ads that promoted skin lighteners as products that could beautify; even out, lighten, and brighten skin coloring; restore damaged and aging skin; boost self-confidence; and enhance one’s social and love life. Fragmentary evidence suggests that these claims resonated with some black South African modern girls by promising that a luxurious and barely affordable commodity could enhance their appearance and stature within black communities and render them recognizable in larger segregationist, and later apartheid, publics. During the 1950s and 1960s, the marketing and use of skin lighteners among African Americans decreased significantly amid the political and cultural influences of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Over precisely those same decades, the sale of skin lighteners to black South Africans took off as they became more engaged in consumer culture and apartheid policies further heightened the salience of skin color. Through advertising in popular magazines like Zonk! and Drum, South African manufacturers marketed skin lighteners across the southern African region and into west and east Africa, generating a multi-million rand per year industry.

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