September 10, 2013
Brazilian music star Anitta. Photograph: Mauricio Santana/Corbis
In Brazil , there's a new diva on the mainstream block: Anitta , formerly the favelas' mistress of funk, now turned R&B pop star. She got her start singing gritty baile funk, or funk carioca, belting out songs rich with references to street life and gangsta glam.
Now, she has a record deal with Warner Music and a cleaned up sound, decidedly less gritty, and decidedly more Top 40 – and apparently, the marketing powers that be decided she needed a new look to go with it. Her curly hair has been straightened, along with the bump in her nose. And her once honey brown skin looks suspiciously lighter, the better, it seems, to appeal to a mainstream audience. Except, in a majority black/brown country like Brazil, is "whiter" really mainstream?
Anitta's makeover sparked a flurry of debate in the South American nation, which boasts the largest population of African-heritage people outside the continent. Outraged bloggers published before-and-after pictures of Anitta to make their case. Multiracial Brazil, like the US and UK, seems to subscribe to that old adage: if you're white, you're alright; if you're brown, stick around, and if you're black, get back. Light skin equals power, which equals access and acceptance. Racial ambiguity can be the key to crossover success.
Of course, Anitta's hardly the first brown-skinned wannabe to survey the pop culture landscape and come to the conclusion that a whiter look would ease her way to stardom. Michael Jackson famously got whiter and whiter over the years (thanks, he claimed, to a skin condition known as vitiligo); rapper Lil' Kim is a ghost of her former self; Dominican baseball great Sammy Sosa jarringly went from black to white to black again after using skin bleaching creams. Beyonce, who has always been light-skinned, has had to battle rumors that she's indulged in skin bleaching, the latest being her ads this year for H&M . (Then again, when she darkened her skin for a fashion layout, she caught flack for that, too.)
The color struck thing is a global phenomenon, taking root wherever slavery or colonialism once reigned and where white Europeans were the ones in control. In India, skin bleaching is a $432m a year industry . Bollywood stars are almost always quite fair-skinned. TV ads equate skin lightening with an improved social life and enhanced career prospects. There's even an ad peddling a skin-lightening soaps to whitewash genitalia. In Jamaica, public health officials have tried to combat epidemic skin bleaching with a "Don't Kill the Skin". According to the World Health Organization, Nigeria leads the pack in skin bleaching , with 77% of Nigerian women resorting to skin lightening creams; 59% of Togolese women use it, while 27% in Senegal use them.
I remember the first time I visited Senegal, my virgin voyage to the continent. As a post-Civil Rights African-American, I'd romanticized Africa, fantasizing about a place overflowing with black self-love and acceptance. Instead, what I found in Senegal shocked and saddened me. More often than not, billboards regularly featured models sporting cafe au lait complexions while real-life women walked around with ashen grey faces, a telltale sign that they'd gotten hooked on bleaching. On another trip, I stopped at a pharmacy in Islamabad, Pakistan, looking for hair conditioner and instead finding row after row of skin lightening products with bluntly matter-of-fact labels like "whitening cream". No attempt to pretty up their intent with euphemisms like "brightening".
You could argue that this is just a matter of aesthetics. After all, India's preoccupation with fair skin seems to predate English colonialism. (India's " Dark Is Beautiful Campaign " is a wonderful counterpoint.) And conversely, you have whites like the Tanning Mom resorting to crazy extremes to darken their skin. Sometimes, the skin bleaching finger pointing amounts to a modern day witch hunt, with bloggers posting speculative photo galleries accusing everyone from Nikki Minaj to Rihanna of bleaching their brown. Sometimes what looks like overzealous skin bleaching is really bright lights and Photoshop run amok.
But people are risking their lives to achieve this aesthetic ideal. Bleaching creams, often sold unregulated in developing countries, frequently contain dangerous levels of hydroquinone and mercury. But even if these concoctions weren't toxic, as long as white is equals power, and white is perceived to equal beauty, something a lot more complicated – and insidious – than mere aesthetics is at work.