Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners

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By Lynn M. Thomas

Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2020, 368 pp., $28.95 (paperback).

Whilst working on Beneath the Surface, Lynn Thomas wrote a piece on ‘Historicising Agency’ as she grappled with how agency had slipped from a ‘conceptual tool or starting point to a concluding argument’ (2016, p 324). She questioned the endurance of agency as a scholarly argument amongst Western scholars of gender and Africa and urges historians to reconsider the utility of agency as an analytical tool that can highlight the role of psychic desires and imaginations (2016, p 327, p 332). These reformulations, she argues, are indispensable for understanding the use of skin lighteners in ‘sedimented layers of history’— layers including gendered beauty ideals, institutional practices of racism and colourism, and transnational forms of visual media (p 222). Thomas attends to the multi-layered functions of agency in Beneath the Surface in which she compellingly undertakes a serious exploration of commercial skin-lighteners in twentieth-century South Africa, looking outwards to East Africa and the United States but also early modern European, pre-colonial, and transnational influences. For instance, Thomas shows how precolonial conceptions of beauty in East Africa were shaped by the cultural and commercial influences of Islam and trading networks that traversed the Sahara Desert as well as the Atlantic Ocean (p 167, p 230).

The first chapter considers pre-colonial southern African cosmetic practices of smearing and brightening the skin whereby ‘a smeared and painted body was a body well cared for’ (p 26). Thomas demonstrates how these practices were embedded in gendered, generational beauty ideals rather than racial designations whilst also tracing how these bodily cultivations became entangled with racialised ideas introduced by settlers and migrants under colonial rule (p23). Thomas’s twentieth-century focus makes consideration of pre-colonial ideas around colour and skin-lightening necessary but involves a danger of framing the pre-colonial as a pre-history to the business of commercial skin-lighteners. Thomas does mention the consistent popularity of ritualistic substances, like ummemezi (p 30), but attending to homemade or unbranded skin lighteners further would mitigate a pre-history reading of lightening practices. Chapter Two centres an analysis of the South African newspaper Bantu World which contained female photo contests representing female beauty and early-twentieth-century marketing campaigns of products like Apex (p 63). This chapter begins to deal with one of the book’s central themes: how media forms represented modernity via constructions of femininity, glamour, and class, which were debated through discussions about whitening, lightening and make-up in the 1930s (p 57).

The third and fourth chapters examine the rise of local manufacturing amongst South African pharmacists and other entrepreneurs against the backdrop of segregation, and later, apartheid. Like Shirley Tate, who has written extensively on skin transformations across the Atlantic world, Thomas maps how colour-based racialised categories in twentieth-century South Africa (Native or Bantu, European, Asian, and Mixed or Coloured) held ‘significant social and political weight’ (p 2).  In this context, skin-lighteners became increasingly affordable commodities between the late 1940s and mid-1970s (p 149). Citing the Modern Girl in the World research group, of which Thomas was part, she shows how consumption became a ‘site of meaningful self-fashioning’ whereby choices to lighten skin were entangled with socio-political structures alongside personal motivations, social fantasies, and desires of futurity (2016, p 329, p 332). Thomas utilises the concept of ‘technologies of visibility’ to show how skin-lighteners operated to attract attention, enhance appearances, and render users legible in new visual and cultural forms, visibilities heightened through advertising campaigns and beauty pageants in popular publications circulating within and beyond South Africa like Zonk! and Drum (p 20, p 127).

Going beyond readings of magazines as evidencing European cultural and racial mimicry, Thomas attempts to attend to the ‘material and affective dynamics’ that made adverts so pervasive and enduring (p 119). Her deft analysis of advertisements and magazine spreads add to the book’s arguments about the visuality of media by presenting readers with images to peruse and decipher. The visual images are supplemented with individual experiences of women who describe how technologies of visibility functioned including an interview with Black South African singer Abigail Khubeka (p 136) and the autobiography of political activist Emma Mashinini (p 140). Thomas also nuances her technologies of visibility argument to incorporate other voices who rejected this approach, like Miriam Makeba who conveys the painful and complex meanings of skin colour within families in her autobiography (p 144). However, further explorations on the conjugal, familial, and intergenerational dimensions of lightening within the oral sources and life histories examined would extend affective and tension-laced meanings of colour.

Chapters Five and Six examine growing biomedical concerns and regulatory debates around active ingredients in commercial skin-lighteners in the United States, alongside the shifting political contexts of the Black Power movements and the rise of anti-colonial African nationalisms. Thomas tracks Atlantic influences including Negritude and black consciousness raising before focusing on the rise of the ‘Black is Beautiful’ mantra in the U.S. and South Africa (p 191). Taking a deep dive into organisational, parliamentarian, and political views, Thomas cites various movements who campaigned against skin-lighteners and other corporeal practices such as the Tanzania Youth League and Kenyan politicians (pp 174-175). These macro debates are augmented with personal interviews including with ‘Miss Cape Town’ of 1976 Cynthia Malgas who described how ‘Black is Beautiful’ was a powerful maxim for dark-skinned beauty contestants and models (p 197). Indeed, Beneath the Surface’s strength lies in weaving anti-racist, nationalist, and biomedical debates together by using ‘connective comparison’ as a tool to explore transnational temporalities (p 12). Despite this, the Caribbean and Britain are not considered significant reference points for the transcultural routes that commodities tread. Further connective comparisons could have been made on the circulation of ideas around beauty, femininity, and colour between Britain, the Caribbean, and the United States.. Likewise, taking into account the Indian diaspora in South Africa and other African territories, I am surprised that Thomas found little evidence of South Asia’s involvement in the trade before the 1980s (p 12). In fact, many imperially-sanctioned foreign companies that operated in Africa were also advertising the same products in colonial India such as Mercolized Wax

Thomas draws on a range of sources to reconstruct a transnational history of skin-lighteners from reading missionary, traveller, and ethnographic accounts, political tracts, personal correspondence, and magazines, and conducting interviews and mining popular fiction and songs to the analysis of business and marketing reports, medical studies, regulatory investigations, and advertising campaigns. She skilfully reads different sources alongside one other to elucidate the contours of the skin-lightener trade and related biomedical debates. For instance, her investigation of business histories is enriched by interviews with factory employees alongside correspondence revealing consumer choices (p 83, p 88). The oral history approach applied in Beneath the Surface is valuable to exploring the visceral reactions elicited by skin-lightening and in attending to how different interlocutors saw contemporary use and historical precedents on beauty ideals (p 181). Thomas incorporates personally or co-conducted interviews with medical professionals, manufacturers and traders, activists, beauty queens, and models. The ‘slippery’ meanings of skin-lighteners (p 9) are most effectively explored through their operation as technologies or visibility and within contestations around active ingredients, however the materiality and tacitly of skin-lightening could have been excavated further from interviews— perhaps via additional in-text analyses of passages or the inclusion of extracts in appendices. Nonetheless, Thomas takes a broad approach to oral history to include forms of life writing. Citing edited collections in African history, Thomas had explained that scholars often consciously and unconsciously attempted to ‘gain great legitimacy for our work’ by using oral traditions and life histories (2016, p 328). Conscious of this pitfall, Thomas incorporates intertextual readings of personal correspondence archives (p 6), letters to editors in popular magazines (p 59), memoirs (p 60), and fiction (p 63) as oral commentaries which highlight individual desires and quotidian motivations as well as malleabilities of experience.

Overall, Thomas’s layered history of ‘composite meanings and unexpected conjectures’ adds to broader anti-racist and anti-colonial histories by attending to the social, cultural, and political dimensions of commercial skin-lighteners (p 236). Beneath the Surface’s acuity will inform those working on similar questions of race, colour, and consumption in other regions and remain a significant work for scholars of area studies and globally comparative histories alike.

Listen to:  Interview with Lynn Thomas for the New Books Network Podcast

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