The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Bleaching, Beauty, & Cultural Bias

Lakenda Wallace

Why do we desire that which is not granted to us? If we have curly hair, we wish it were straight. If we have straight hair, we wish it were curly. The grass is always greener.

Actually, that should read, the grass is always whiter.

Did you know skin bleaching was a $43 Billion dollar beauty business globally in 2008, expected to be an $88 Billion business by 2024? Yes, having the whitest skin is so revered around the world that carcinogenic bleaching agents are regularly found in lotions and cream that promise to make your skin lighter. Imagine a commercial with a beautiful, pale, Korean woman slathering herself with a bleaching lotion, smiling, as the jingle behind her croons, “White is so nice.” Disturbing, yes? And real. These products are well controlled in the United States, but can be found throughout South Korea, Japan, China, Caribbean, Ghana, India, Nigeria, and unnamed countries in Africa, South America and Asia.

I recognize the economics tied to the preference for lighter/whiter skin. In India darker skin can mean a lack of marriage offers. The darker skin is perceived as being associated with a lower caste. In America lighter skin is associated with agreeableness and education. According to a Harvard Study, Skin Tone Effects among African Americans: Perceptions and Reality by Joni Hersch, “Lighter skin tone has a consistent positive impact on educational attainment but has a less consistent influence on wages.” Of course, we know education has a huge impact on wages, so…

Lighter is better. In the United States and abroad the reverence for blonde hair cannot be overstated. As In fact, as recently as 2016, Inc. Magazine ran a piece called, Why Are Female CEOs Disproportionally Blonde? Research explains why half the female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are blonde. “Statistics don't lie. Only 2 percent of the world's population has naturally blond hair. If you narrow your sample to white people in the United States, that percentage goes up, but only to 5 percent. But look at women in leadership positions and you'll see a lot of golden tresses. More than a third of female senators--35 percent--are blonde. And though the sample size for female CEOs of S&P 500 companies is admittedly small, 48 percent--nearly half--are blonde.”

The research that is the basis for this article was conducted by Jennifer Berdahl and Natalya Alonso, professors at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. The professors interviewed a study of 100 men to gauge the impact of hair color on immediate perceptions found, “given photos of blonde and brunette women paired with a quote, such as "My staff knows who's boss" or "I don't want there to be any ambiguity about who's in charge." Suddenly there were big differences, with the brunettes coming in for harsh criticism, while the blondes were rated much higher on warmth and attractiveness.”

So whiter is better, whether hair, skin, teeth…and that perception is, literally, killing people. Skin bleaching has been linked to mercury poisoning, dermatitis, damage to the kidneys, linked to cancer, and unbelievable discoloration and scarring if you stop using the product. So think twice before you start adding that bleaching agent. It is a beauty commitment that really asks till death do you part.

Hair bleaching has not been linked to any cancers, though it is known to damage hair, damage scalp, cause chemical irritations (read low grade allergic-like reactions) to the scalp, damage hair, and cause possible hair loss. Not deadly, as far as we know, but not beneficial for the hair, just your status.

So what have we learned? Bleaching is caustic and corrosive and does damage. It is commonly used for an advantageous positioning within society.

Professors Alonso and Berdahl seemed to sum up their findings when they told the Huffington Post, "If women are choosing to dye their hair blonde, there's something strategic about the choice. If the package is feminine, disarming, and childlike, you can get away with more assertive, independent, and masculine behavior."

Ladies and gentlemen, we are that society. We are letting baseless, superficial perceptions influence our decision-making. So the woman with dark hair is a bitch and the blonde is “cute for being all bossy and everything.” Anyone else recognize how demeaning that is for all sides?

We are killing ourselves, literally, to be perceived as more. That is a mentality of lack, bolstered by you-need-to-be-something-more-to-be-accepted advertising and media. Well, Oprah is not a blonde. Viola Davis is not a blonde.

You are enough. Right now as you are.

Now, I am not saying we need to all go brunette tomorrow, but it is worth ruminating over these truths. Can we not accept whoever we are, as we are? The biggest glow up of your life is accepting who you are.

Think about it. Our shared collective trauma is beginning to show.