A 'tour de force' on the skin-lightening industry, from precolonial times to the postcolonial present

20 January 2020 - 10:54
'Beneath the Surface'.
'Beneath the Surface'.
Image: Supplied

For more than a century, skin lighteners have been a ubiquitous feature of global popular culture — embraced by consumers even as they were fiercely opposed by medical professionals, consumer-health advocates and antiracist thinkers and activists.

In Beneath the Surface, Lynn M. Thomas constructs a transnational history of skin lighteners in SA and beyond. Analysing a wide range of archival, popular-culture and oral-history sources, Thomas traces the changing meanings of skin colour from precolonial times to the postcolonial present.

She investigates indigenous skin-brightening practices and the rapid spread of lighteners in SA consumer culture during the 1940s and 1950s, and the growth of a billion-dollar global lightener industry.

Thomas shows how the use of skin lighteners and experiences of skin colour have been shaped by slavery, colonialism, and segregation, as well as consumer capitalism, visual media, notions of beauty and protest politics.

In teasing out lighteners’ layered history, Thomas theorises skin as a site for antiracist struggle and lighteners as a technology of visibility that challenges and entrenches racial and gender hierarchies.

Beneath the Surface is nothing short of a tour de force. Lynn M. Thomas’s “layered history” does justice to the immensely difficult subject of skin lighteners. Carefully attending to the complex politics of race and colour that are grounded in skin, Thomas at once provides a vibrant history of South Africa and a global history of commodity, beauty, and the body. This landmark study sets a new standard in the field.— Julie Livingston, author of Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa

Allowing for a comparative analysis over a period of time when the global relationships and meanings of skin colour became tied to class, race, and racism, Beneath the Surface helps us understand the intense and long-standing interest whites and blacks have had in lightening the colour of their skin despite the potential for severe health risks. There is simply no other book like it. Noliwe M. Rooks, author of Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women

Lynn M. Thomas is Professor of History at the University of Washington, co-editor of The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization and author of Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya.