’It’s alright to tell the truth’: Unfair Podcast, episode 3

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Glossy is proud to present Unfair, a podcast about the global skin-lightening industry and everything it touches, from the demand for lighter skin to the beauty companies selling to it.

In episode three, Unfair explores the deep — and often surprising — history of the market for skin-lightening in the United States and South Africa.

Unfair is hosted by Priya Rao, executive editor at Glossy, and produced by Digiday senior producer Pierre Bienaimé.

Subscribe to the Glossy Beauty Podcast now on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the podcast’s third episode.


At one point in our video call with Ricci de Forest, he excused himself to go get something.

DE FOREST: Tell you what — excuse me.

He came back holding up a big black and white photograph from around 1911. In it, four women are seated in a car, looking over to the camera. 

DE FOREST: This was unheard of in the early 1900s.

The one at the wheel is Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker, who may very well have been America’s first self-made female millionaire. She happened to be African American. And she seems to wear that success pretty well.

DE FOREST: Look at the size of the plume in her hat, much larger than her cohorts. A little more flamboyant, but self-assured.

Yeah, the plume in her hat is pretty big. Walker made her fortune in cosmetics, an industry that hosted some of the biggest and most profitable Black businesses at the time. Walker and her competitors, many of them women, rightly saw that beauty companies weren’t catering to Black consumers like themselves.

DE FOREST: Blacks were underserved, almost in every capacity. So this product line was there, there was probably very little competition in terms of a product specifically designed for Black women of that era.

De Forest himself is a hair stylist. When he was looking for a new location for his Atlanta salon 20 years ago, he decided to move into this old Madam C. J. Walker beauty shop.

DE FOREST: I get the lease, come in and find beauty tools used by the Walker agents from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ’50s. ‘So I said ‘you know what, I’m going to move my salon here and preserve the legacy.

Walker’s main line of business was hair, too. In a way, her founder story is a pretty typical one, by today’s hustler CEO standards. She had made a home remedy for her own issues. It worked, so she went on to sell it across the country.

After her death in 1919, though, the Madam C. J. Walker brand also sold “Tan-Off,” a bleach that it marketed to remedy “dark spots” and a quote unquote “cloudy complexion.” 

According to de Forest, she herself never would have taken something like Tan-Off to market.

DE FOREST: If Madam C. J. Walker was still at the helm, at the controls, I don’t think we would have had that sort of product marketing. The light skin bleaching cream and things like that.

And it’s true that Walker could have expanded into this product category if she had wanted to. Black and white-owned companies sold lighteners at the time. One African American newspaper carried an ad, in 1900, for a “Black Skin Remover” complete with a “before and after” illustration.

So it seems Walker wasn’t interested. And we got a second opinion on that.

BUNDLES: I cringe when I see that. And I know that it is so different from what Madam Walker herself would have done. 

That’s A’Lelia Bundles. She’s C. J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, and the author of Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, a biography of her relative. She also consulted Netflix on a series of the same name, based on Walker’s life.

SOUND: From Netflix trailer

Tan-Off is a footnote in Walker’s story, and it came about after her death. But still, it was a success. By the late ‘20s, it was one of the company’s best-sellers. Newspaper ads for the product promised a “safe and effective compound for brightening skin.”

The skin lightening business in America continued for decades from there. Growing up in Indianapolis, where her great-great-grandmother had set up headquarters, Bundles remembers one commercial by the company Artra, playing over the radio.

BUNDLES: We had a Black radio station that was only on from sun up to sundown. The signal on the station was pretty weak. But that meant at night, on a really cold night. We would get a station from Nashville and that station played some R&B and there was always this ad for Artra. Artra skin tone cream! And you would hear the person in the ad saying: ‘Baby your skin looks whiter. Your skin looks brighter. Must have been using Artra skin tone cream.’

A’Lelia told us that she’s glad to see the modern skin lightening industry being challenged worldwide today. As she points out, the problem itself is worldwide.

BUNDLES: I’m glad that this conversation is happening now. And that we understand that it’s not just a phenomenon. I think those of us who are African Americans growing up in America think that it is centered on us. But obviously it is on all continents, and light skin color is prized in many societies.

If you want to talk about the history of skin lighteners, there are a lot of places you could start. But this anecdote about Madame C. J. Walker says a lot. The story of how skin lighteners came to be made and marketed is much more complex than you might expect. It’s not just about a club of western CPG companies persuading consumers worldwide that they should pay their way to lighter skin. The 20th century saw beauty companies make a buck here in the U.S., too.

The story of skin lighteners may be rooted in capitalism today, but its origins also delve into the insecurities created from colonialism, classism, and casteism — something one of our guests called “the big bad C’s.”

In this episode, we jump into that history, starting in the United States and following the flow of exports around the globe.

This is Unfair, a podcast brought to you by Glossy. I’m Priya Rao.

Blain Roberts is a historian at California State University, Fresno. And on the topic of skin lighteners, she agrees with A’Lelia. 

ROBERTS: It’s not unique to the United States.

The market for whiter skin is a global one. But it has existed in America since even before the Civil War.

ROBERTS: You would have found this ideal prevalent throughout the United States in the antebellum era.

Blain wrote a book on beauty standards in the South, especially. But here she talks about a dynamic that seems to have existed all around the world at various times — in the ancient Mediterranean, ancient China and Japan, and in early modern Europe… Darker skin was associated with outdoor labor. And that inevitably gave away a person’s station, including in 19th century America.

ROBERTS: It was very much imbued with class meaning: you were upper class, you were elite. And it had a really racialized meaning: you were white, you were not enslaved. And that emphasis on whiteness on white skin survived the Civil War into the post-war period, and even into the 20th century for white women.

In a book published this year, the historian Lynn Thomas details how the Dearborn Company, in the Midwest, trademarked a product called “mercolized wax” in 1911. “Mercolized” as in “mercury.” And sure enough, the toxic metal made up 10 percent of this stuff. Physicians had warned about the dangers of mercury even in the 18th and 19th centuries. And now in the 20th, the American Medical Association denounced the Dearborn Company’s product as poisonous even as it started being sold. But cosmetic safety wasn’t yet a broad concern. The FDA wouldn’t provide a national law on cosmetics safety until 1938 (and it hasn’t updated it much since, by the way).

Here’s Lynn Thomas.

THOMAS: In the early 20th century, skin lighteners containing mainly ammoniated mercury — but there were some other active ingredients — were an incredibly popular cosmetic that white women used.

Lynn emphasized the “white women” part of that sentence because that would change. Black women had been using skin lighteners, too. But after the First World War, the new fad, for some… was tanning.

THOMAS: Tanning became a sign of being part of a leisured class, it became a sign of health. And it also became a sign of someone who was able to spend time at the beach or playing tennis. And that association then flipped what had really been the dominant association between pale skin and elite status that had existed in Europe and the Mediterranean world for centuries and centuries, really. 

This was a big shift. Before tanning was in style, the sun’s effects were the last thing you wanted. It proved that you spent a lot of time outside, working, remember?

The roaring ‘20s changed all that. Blaine Roberts, the other historian we heard from earlier, says that the move toward tanning had to do with another inversion: As the U.S. industralized, a lot more work was starting to happen indoors, not out.

ROBERTS: So, you know, by the 1910s, you have a lot of working class women who are working in factories, they’re inside all day long. And so this is when you start to see suntanning emerging and becoming the new sign and signal of leisure. Because what it means is, you’re a woman who doesn’t have to go inside to work, and you have the time and the money to go to a seaside resort and sunbathe.

Articles on sun-tanning increased in the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the late ‘20s. And with Madam C. J. Walker’s Tan-Off, consumers could jump on that outdoorsy trend, too. One newspaper ad from 1928 touted that “there is no need to fear the beaming rays of summer’s sun,” and that “all the outdoor pleasures may be indulged in freely.”

But tanning, of course, was a pursuit… for white people. That meant that ads for skin lighteners began to target women of color, especially.

ROBERTS: And so you don’t see the marketing of these products to white women continue in the way that you do for African American women. These whitening products fall out of fashion with that group. That’s not the case with African American women, really, until the 1960s. When you start to get the rise of Black Power, Black pride, and the “Black is beautiful” movement.

Black pride would have a new ingredient to contend with. Over the course of the 20th century, mercury would gradually be overtaken by something else: hydroquinone.

Like a lot of consequential discoveries, hydroquinone was an accidental one. In the ‘30s, workers at a leather factory near Chicago found themselves suffering from dramatic depigmentation on their forearms. It turned out that the rubber gloves they’d been wearing had been enhanced with a form of hydroquinone. 

Those workers sued their employer, and accepted a cash settlement. But the medical world and cosmetic manufacturers didn’t miss a beat. In 1940, at meetings of the American Dermatological Association, one doctor suggested that hydroquinone could be added to commercial bleaching creams for Black consumers.

Lynn’s book covers hydroquinone in detail.

THOMAS: Pretty much right away cosmetic manufacturers begin to see if there isn’t a commercial application for this.

In 1949, the head of the NAACP, strangely, went a step further. His name was Walter White, and he wrote an article in Look magazine that asked: “has science conquered the color line”? That was the headline. 

In the text, he asked readers to, quote, “Consider what would happen if a means of racial transformation is made available. The racial, social, economic and political consequences would be tremendous.”

You might be guessing that this didn’t go over well with others in the Black community. And you’d be right.

In fact, you can’t tell the modern history of skin lighteners without talking about how it was criticized at every turn. Black leaders in the early 20th century rallied against skin lightening, well before the challenges to it that we’ve seen this year.

Lynn says that many African-American newspapers, for instance, struggled with whether to accept ads for such products.

THOMAS: Cosmetic companies and specifically skin lightener manufacturers would become major sources of advertising revenue. Someone like W.E.B. Du Bois, when he was editor of The Crisis, would not carry advertisements for skin lighteners. But many other companies, including Marcus Garvey’s [Negro] World, would carry advertisements for skin lighteners. And really, I mean, it feels like it’s a contradiction, and in some ways it is. But the real issue there is those publications desperately needed advertising revenue to stay afloat.

Hydroquinone would prove to be a fateful discovery. The FDA had just started taking a hard look at mercury. Here’s Lynn again:

THOMAS: The FDA basically began to issue these recommendations around limiting amounts of mercury. So cosmetic manufacturers were very interested to find another active ingredient. 

With hydroquinone, beauty companies were getting their next mercury. And they definitely marketed it that way.

Remember Artra?

BUNDLES: ‘Baby your skin looks whiter. Your skin looks brighter. Must have been using Artra true skin tone cream.’

It was one of the first companies to include and sell hydroquinone in skin lighteners. And it was very much aimed at Black consumers. Its business practice also seemed to entertain a modern type of corporate responsibility. It underwrote Black cultural events in the ‘60s. It sponsored scholarships through the United Negro College Fund. And it produced some of the first TV commercials to feature Black models. In this one, a man and two women — all three of them very attractive, of course — embrace as they walk down a beach together. The man, his bowtie undone, is happy to find himself in the middle.

SOUND: from Artra commercial

American products that contained hydroquinone wouldn’t just market themselves to the young and the beautiful in the U.S. They’d make their way overseas, to new markets.

In the rest of this episode, in fact, we’re going to focus on a country that has wrestled with skin lightening in an accelerated way. From importing to domestic manufacture, from an outright ban to a black market that survives despite it — in South Africa, we’ll find what Lynn Thomas calls “sedimented layers of history.” In other words: it’s complicated.

There’s a big word we haven’t said much about yet. That word is “colonialism,” and when it comes to skin lightening, it’s unavoidable. 

RONDILLA: Colonialism wreaked havoc, if you can think of the most devastating thing that can happen to a country. It’s like COVID and Trump times a million.

That’s Joanne Rondilla, who teaches sociology at San Jose State University. She focuses on the Filipino community, of which she’s a part. But her description of colonialism is especially relevant here, because South Africa was deeply colonized in a way that is still so visible today. It’s one of the world’s most unequal countries, and that inequality breaks heavily along racial lines. Joanne explains just how much colonization reshaped societies, which, of course, had no say in the matter.

RONDILLA: The power of colonialism is that colonial processes took over media, education, and government. And when you’re able to take over those things, when you’re able to take over those narratives and set the standard of what the media is going to look like, how government is going to structure, how education is built… that’s why colonialism never left. Because it rooted itself in the heart of every major society that it took over.

Let’s define what we mean by colonialism here. We’re talking about European powers, starting in the 15th century, encroaching on newly encountered peoples all around the world. Broadly speaking, colonizers would claim to be bringing civilization — and often Christianity — while, of course, taking systematic advantage of local populations… extracting resources and labor and, like Joanne said, shaping or even creating governments to their liking.

In the case of South Africa, first contact with European visitors came around the year 1500. It would result in strict racial hierarchy and eventually apartheid. But the preference for whiter skin had already existed in a few distinct layers.

Women among one indigenous group chewed the bark of a local tree, which researchers have found interfered with melanin production. An ethnographer in the ‘30s found another group using a bleaching agent derived from grass that women seemed to be using before marriage.

All of which is to say that practices to get lighter skin existed before the rise of products made by corporations. One of Lynn’s overall points, in fact, is that colonialism, racism — and Western influence, full stop — can’t totally explain the appeal of skin lightening, in South Africa or elsewhere.

THOMAS: Colonialism, and segregation and apartheid, they all have an enormous amount to do with the history of skin lighteners and why they’re popular products today. But I would also say there are other influences that are an important part of the history that aren’t entirely reducible to that.

Colonialism, of course, was an egregious system of criminal exploitation. And it took skin lightening to a whole new level, including by opening the region up to western markets.

Mercolated Wax was one of the beneficiaries in the 1910’s. So was Artra, a few decades later. In the 1950s, ads in the South African magazine Drum, which was white-owned, emphasized the glamorous American origins of the product.

Skin lightening ads were so ubiquitous that folk singer Jeremy Taylor sang about the ones that filled Drum magazine’s pages.

Black-White Calypso, as this song from the ‘60s is called, was edgy enough that the South African Broadcast Corporation refused to play it.

Anyway, foreign markets may have been pretty important for American businesses. The domestic market for skin lighteners dried up in the ‘70s, at least as far as mainstream stores went.

But American companies would face increasing competition, in South Africa, from a new direction.

THOMAS: And that was local pharmacists. So these would have been white South African pharmacists, who since the 19th century would have been making these cosmetics for white South African women. And somehow in the 1910s, probably the 1920s, they realized that there was a market for these products, not just with white women, but with women of color.

These pharmacies, which were mostly white, like Lynn said, turned their mixtures into booming businesses. Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, which opened in 2001, was actually funded by the Krok brothers. Their company, Twin Products, had vaulted them up the ranks of South Africa’s richest. And yeah, some of their products contained mercury and hydroquinone.

Of course, opposition to these products sprang up in South Africa, too. The country’s Black Consciousness Movement would draw inspiration from Black Americans’ own fight for civil rights. The apartheid movement recognized the threat, actually going so far as to ban T-shirts that said “Black Is Beautiful” in 1975.

In the early 1980s, Drum, the magazine that had helped the American brand Artra become one of the biggest skin lighteners in the country… agreed to drop ads for all skin lighteners.

But it was the end of apartheid that gave South Africans the occasion to cut the industry down entirely. 

THOMAS: In 1990, so really in the final months of the apartheid regime in South Africa — the white minority rule — the South African legislature passed what are still really the world’s toughest and most expansive regulations against skin lighteners.

Lynn describes how a broad coalition of activists and dermatologists came together to negotiate a ban on the industry as they knew it. The dermatologists knew that skin lighteners were bad for one’s skin. The activists knew just as well that it was bad for one’s soul.

At least, that’s the slightly romantic way of looking at it. When we spoke to Hilary Carman, one of the dermatologists involved at the time, she wasn’t especially “rah-rah” about denouncing the industry as racist or sexist. 

CARMAN: As far as women wanting to change themselves well, you’re not going to stop that.

But hey, maybe that’s what a coalition is for. You have some idealists, and you have some pragmatists. Carman’s actions are what’s important here. 

CARMAN: This was still in the height of apartheid. It was in the 80s.

She and a group of activists together traveled to Cape Town, the legislative capital.

CARMAN: To try and persuade the minister [of health] to ban hydroquinone, which was causing cosmetic ochronosis in the Black population. 

If you’ll recall, ochronosis is an unnatural darkening of the skin that can be caused by hydroquinone. At one point, a spokesperson for the opposition party said people were calling it “apartheid disease.”

CARMAN: And he heard us out, and he listened to us. And then at the end, he said, ‘sorry,’ he’s not going to do anything about it — put his head down and proceeded to write his report.

Yeah. Carman’s effort stalled for a while. This same minister of health, Willie van Niekerk delayed the implementation of a total ban on skin lighteners, in 1988.

Here’s Carman again, talking about her and her group’s different but related set of demands — that day in the 80s.

CARMAN: And to this day, I don’t know what his thinking was. I don’t know why. Surely there were factories employing a lot of people making these skin lightening industries. It was a huge industry. And Twins employed lots of people. Perhaps the argument was that if they stopped hydroquinone, many people would lose their jobs. I do not know.

In the end, the coalition got its way. As apartheid came down, the skin lightening industry came down with it. Even today, all depigmenting agents are banned in South Africa. So are cosmetics claiming to lighten, bleach, or whiten skin.

Of course, the reality is a bit more complicated. 

KHUMALO: My assessment of the industry, at least in South Africa, is that it’s completely not regulated.

That’s Nonhlanhla Khumalo, the head of dermatology at the University of Cape Town. 

In 2016 she participated in a study to test products available in the city’s metropolitan area. 

KHUMALO: We basically just went to various places where people purchase products, both formal and informal, looking at products that advertised anything that would suggest something to do with either lightening or brightening or whitening or clearing the skin. And we were quite surprised, actually, that a lot of these products were from other countries. So the majority of the products were not from South Africa. Many of them listed the illegal ingredients in the container, you know? Didn’t hide it!

Of the 29 products they examined, 22 contained illegal ingredients. All of those 22 had been imported from outside South Africa. 

Some of them came from India. Others Italy, France, the U.K., or the Ivory Coast. Most were creams, but one was a bar of soap. Some contained mercury, some hydroquinone. Many of them contained both.

We asked Nonhlanhla how many people may have suffered medical consequences from products like these. She said it was a black box.

KHUMALO: It’s a black box. I mean, no one can give you that answer. No one.

I had initially called South Africa an accelerated case study. And indeed, it’s gone through all the phases that other countries may find themselves in at one time or another: Pre-colonial skin-lightening practices were dwarfed by imports from around the world, and then by modern domestic industry. Eventually, effective activism would eliminate the industry in a way few other countries have seen, at least on paper. And today, unfortunately, a dangerous black market thrives, putting lives at risk, and putting brown and Black lives face-to-face with a commercial form of idealized whiteness.

BUNDLES: I have a wide range of vintage Madam Walker products.

We’re back in A’Lelia Bundles’ home. And she’s showing us, over Zoom, her collection of products from the company her great-great-grandmother founded in 1906.

BUNDLES: And I also have in this box, a sample of Tan-Off. This little tin is about the size of a 50 cent piece. And it is so old that I can’t open it. But you can hear me trying to twist it off, but it just won’t budge.

In a way, it’s not the best metaphor. Because A’Lelia isn’t trying to keep a lid on this part of history.

BUNDLES: This is something that I sort of put at the back of the drawer. I really hate this thing. But I think it is a part of history. And it is something that I should recognize, that was sold by the Walker company, but not during Madam Walker’s lifetime. History has to have all of the blemishes. One of the things that the great gifts that I received from my mother, when I was first starting to do research, and when I went to Indianapolis during Christmas, one of my last conversations with her, I said, ‘you know, I’m starting to find out that Madam Walker is not perfect. Now, of course, nobody’s perfect. She had a divorce, there were other things. These weren’t really scandalous. But I was finding things that were beyond the myth. And I said, ‘so mommy, what do I do about that? And she said, ‘tell the truth, baby. It’s alright to tell the truth.’

Unfair is brought to you by Glossy. Our producer is Pierre Bienaimé, who also produced the music. We want to give a special thanks to Lynn Thomas, whose book, Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners, was especially useful to us for our research in this episode.

Next time, on Unfair, we look at the future of the skin lightening industry, and at the different paths corporations today could take.

VOICE 1: You know, I’ve worked with a lot of the people in the companies, not just simply in my old company, but others as well. And a lot of them want to do the right thing. They’re driven by strong values. And this just does not work within that value set.

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