Should people looking to lighten their skin just accept themselves?

I have a very close 25yr Tanzanian friend who recently told me that he wanted to lighten his skin. At first I was taken a bit suprised thinking he wants to change who he was but then I realized that he was an adult who could make rational decisions for himself.

I advised him to go to a GP so that he would be referred to a dermatologist or a plastic surgeon but he was just told by the doctor to “accept your skin colour”. He seemed furious at this as he thought that skin lightening would reduce chances of discrimination and make him feel more attractive.

In my opinion, this seems a bit ignorant by the doctor. I know well that creams such as hydroquinone are dangerous and can cause skin cancer but I’m sure that there are safer alternatives. I bet people said the same thing to those wanting gender reassignment surgery when it didn’t exist yet. But now we have some methods for lightening skin so why not give them to those who have thought through about it?

What are your thoughts?

I think dark skin is attractive. Of course nobody should be discriminated against, for being any color–but they are. I may find it regrettable that anyone wants to lighten their skin to be thought more attractive, or to try to reduce discrimination. But then, I may think all cosmetic surgery is regrettable, except in cases of dramatic birth defect, or disfiguring traumatic injury. And it’s really not my business what other people want to do with their bodies, is it?

Gender reassignment surgery still doesn’t exist. Odd comparison anyway, people who darken their skin through for instance sun bathing or self-tanners are the direct comparison to people who lighten the skin.

People can do what they want. Skin whitening products are the rave in SE Asia, and people use having fair skin as synonymous with being pretty. If your friend doesn’t think he got what he wanted from his current doctor, he should take his business to another place more willing to accommodate his requirements.

At the scale of an individual, it makes perfect sense (barring side effects).

But at the societal level, it only entrenches the problem of racial discrimination. It not only perpetuates it, it worsens it because it turns dark skin into a “choice” to be vilified, like any other sign of “poor” grooming.

Of course self-acceptance would be the more noble position. But you don’t earn any extra points in life by being virtuous.

Would I ever lighten my skin? No. Would I judge someone unfairly for lightening their skin? I don’t know. I guess it would depend on where a person is literally coming from, what kind of pressure they are facing, why exactly they are doing it, and what else they are changing about themselves. Honestly, I don’t feel like I am in the position to judge since I am pretty light-skinned myself and no one has ever made fun of me for being too dark. I don’t think anyone should judge if they have never been in that situation.

And yet it is covered by insurance, in some cases.

People with light skin darken all the time. The individual can do what he wants. I recommend learning to live with what you have, but what works for me may not work for others.

But why not change. Shouldn’t one have the right to feel attractive and accepted by society (according to themselves)?

My ex-boyfriend’s mother, who hated me with a passion, and told me directly that I was corrupting her “good Christian son”, had exactly one nice, grudging thing to say about me: “At least she’s light-skinned”.

All my life I’ve been told how “gauri” (fair-skinned) I am and how pretty it is. I don’t think this is a cultural shift that’s happening anytime soon, and even less so as the eastern world gets more and more exposed to western standards of beauty. Fair-skinned is considered beautiful. Unfortunately many South Indian girls are so beautifully dusky-hued but they keep ruining their skin by lightening it…and some of the most famous actresses are actually quite dark but lighten their skin all the time.

It’s kind of sad. That mocha color can be stunning. Me, I am all different shades of caramel, it’s not universal at all.

I said the individual can do what he wants. I’d rather society felt I was attractive and accepted for who I am. YMMV.

My impression is that there are multiple factors (beyond the western notions of beauty) that play into wanting light skin. Dark skin is associated with lower class peasantry and farmers.

In the US its because darker skinned blacks get worse reactions than light skinned blacks.

I think the answer completely depends on the motivation, if its purely for aesthetic reasons then its probably no worse than getting a tan. The avoiding of discrimination may possibly be a bit more problematic since it could be viewed as effectively giving in to racism. At worst it could be a sign internalized racism where the individual himself believes that his self worth is associated with the color of his skin, and wants to hide it from others. That is the situation where whitening could be more harmful than helpful.

Very few people who tan do so because they are embarrassed by their identity as a white person.

Well, why don’t you prescribe his some alternative methods based upon your own credentials?

My initial reaction is to say, “People should like who they are!” And to say that I object to plastic surgery, in principle.

But then I start thinking, well, what is the acceptable level of managing ones appearance? Losing weight, and going to the gym to work out are always considered acceptable, yah? We cut our hair for appearance sake, and most(?) women wear some level of makeup. Many women use all sorts of ointments and potions on their skin. When in comes to body modifications, is liposuction for an obese person more acceptable than a boob job or nose job or a facelift for an average looking person? As for myself, I had braces on my teeth and they removed 4 teeth in the process, isn’t that a form of body modification?

So, I guess what I’m getting at is that maybe there is a line somewhere but I certainly don’t know where it is. So, why not lighten ones skin, if it can be done?

I think there is a distinction between doing something for purely cosmetic reasons and trying to look like you are a different “race”.

There’s not really any way to know the motivation just from seeing the outward actions, but taking an extreme risk to health implies maybe the latter.
And if it is the latter, it is probably better to address underlying feelings of racism or inferiority than try to change the actual body (which right now is largely futile anyway).

Having said that, frankly, if you could one day trivially change your skin colour for a small cost and little risk, that would essentially be the end of discrimination based on skin colour. Skin colour would be based on fashion, not ancestry. But we’re not there now, and meanwhile attempts to change skin colour by an extreme amount are dangerous, don’t give good results and may be irreversible.

It’s sad that your friend is so poorly self-loving that he needs lighter skin to feel more attractive, and it’s sad that your friend will find out that lightening his skin while still having African features is going to do absolutely squat to reduce discrimination against him.

If I told my students in China to line up according to skin color, they could do so without even thinking about it. They were hyper-attuned to even the slightest variations of skin tone, and being judged by your skin color is just an everyday constant in life that you are always a part of. It didn’t help that many jobs overtly screen by skin tone.

I don’t think that is a particularly healthy dynamic. The time and money spent in managing and worrying about skin color could be more productively spent elsewhere. And I don’t think you can have that level of obsession with skin tone without discrimination sneaking in, which isn’t good for humans and isn’t good for productivity. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing, but I think there is a strong correlation between rigid beauty standards and destructive aspects of gender roles.

So while people can do what they want, I’d rather see a focus on beauty that celebrates variation rather than forcing everyone into a single mold.

I don’t have personal experience, and I have the privilege of having never experienced discrimination that I’m aware of, but I’ll second this sentiment. I think it’s unlikely that appearance changes (except for the type that correct for disfigurement or the like) are likely to have any impact on someone’s happiness. I don’t think it’s possible to be happy unless and until someone accepts themselves as who they truly are.

Can I play Devil’s Advocate for a moment?

If I woke up one morning looking like the Elephant Man, I’m not gonna front. I’d be devastated. Very very devastated. Eventually I’d probably get to the point where I’d be not-miserable. Maybe I’d even have some degree of satisfaction with life. But I don’t think I’d ever accept myself looking like that. I’d always be self-conscious. I’d always hate my reflection. I’d always be looking for a way to make myself less Elephant Man-like.

I think I’d be kinda pissed off if a person who does not look like Elephant Man told me that I should just accept the way I look. First off, they aren’t the one who has to live with the stigma. I do. And secondly, happiness most certainly can come with making positive changes to oneself. Don’t people who have prosthetic limbs enjoy more in life than those who can’t afford them? Is it a waste of time for a person to remove an embarrassing facial tattoo? Would not their quality of life improve just a little?

I don’t mean to liken dark skin to gross facial abnormalities and handicaps. But it is undeniable that dark skin comes with hardship, along the lines of other things that folks get “corrected” all the time, without any judgment. We can see the sadness in it, while still recognizing that how we look can affect how we feel about ourselves and thus how happy we are. Do we know that people who lighten their skin are just as unhappy as they were before? Or does it just make us feel good to think this, because doing so perpetuates the notion that happiness is some lofty thing that only self-actualized mountain-top sages experience.

[/Devil’s Advocate]

I’d put something akin to the Elephant Man in the “disfigurement” category which I mentioned as an exception, but I take your point. I’m open to the possibility that skin-lightening might improve the lives of some people, but that goes against my experiences and the experiences that I’ve gathered from the black people that I’ve spoken to specifically about skin-lightening. But I’m far from certain, and I’d certainly be open to having my mind changed, especially from anyone who says that skin-lightening improved their life.

I wasn’t assuming the guy was lightening his skin JUST to curry favor with whites. Plenty of black folks are “colorist”. Black people with this disease can distinguish skin tones that others would lump together. Like, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a white person say “red bone”. That’s an invention of black people, who are more likely to “see” the reddish tones on a brown skinned-person. The OP’s friend may be trying to shoot for more red than brown. Maybe he thinks he’d be able to attract “better” mates with this strategy.