‘Whitenicious’: Why Blac Chyna’s promotion of this skin lightening cream has caused controversy.
American Model Blac Chyna has come under fire this week following the announcement of the launch of her new skin care line in collaboration with ‘Whitenicious’, the brand of skin lightening cream created by Cameroonian singer Dencia in 2014. The line includes a $20 exfoliating soap, $35 facial cream and $250 ‘illuminating and lightening cream’ which Chyna is set to launch on the 25th of November in Lagos, Nigeria. “As time passes, skin becomes drier, dull, lines and wrinkles appear and the skin's natural glow dims” says the brand’s official website on the last product. However, although the cream claims that it “lightens (skin) without bleaching out” the promotion of the product by a social media influencer like Blac Chyna has drawn attention to the effect of skin lightening and bleaching creams as well as the issue of colourism. Particularly as the product is to be launched in Nigeria, a country where 77% of its women use skin-lightening products according to estimations by the World Health Organisation. This is the highest percentage in the world.
Although Blac Chyna’s recent association with Whitenicious has drawn attention to it, the product has sparked debate over skin lightening and bleaching since its launch in 2014; concerning the image and message it sends to women of colour and African women in particular since the product is widely marketed on the continent. The first striking thing which has been criticised about this brand is its name, ‘Whitenicious’. Some argue that despite the brand’s claim that its primary aim is to help women remove their dark spots, the name Whitenicious instead implies that darker skin is inferior to whiter and lighter skin and this is what women of colour should aspire to have. By doing this, one could say that the brand’s beauty standards for its primarily black African customer base, is based on whiteness and thus promotes self-hatred amongst dark-skinned women.
Dencia, the creator of the brand has often responded to her critics by stating that skin-lightening is a conscious choice made by her well-informed, adult customers. She differentiates between damaging skin bleaching products which contain hydroquinone, mercury and/or steroids and Whitenicious which she says only contains natural ingredients. Hydroquinone, mercury and or steroids in skin-lightening creams can cause eczema, kidney failure and skin cancer and other health issues. ’It’s not just about lightening your skin, it is about using the right products,’ she stated in a 2015 interview with FoxDC. In the same interview, she notes that her clientele are most likely affluent as the average African is not concerned with skin lightening and offers her own view on the WHO statistic stating that 77% of Nigerian women bleach their skin. “Technically I’m not going to deny that because I didn’t do that research but when they say that, most of those women use really bad products that have like hydroquinone, steroids.’
In spite of Dencia’s affirmations about the freedom of women to choose how they want their skin to look, my biggest issue with skin-lightening creams like Whitenicious is the potential psychological effect they may have on the self-esteem of young black girls. It is true that teenagers are unlikely to make-up the majority of her clientele due to the $250 demanded to buy a 100g tub of the cream which comes in a jar handcrafted in real Swarovksi crystals. Nevertheless, this does not mean that they cannot work and save money until they can afford the cream. They may use more dangerous skin bleaching products until they can afford the high class and celebrity approved, skin-lightening Whitenicious. These young girls make up a large sector of Nigeria’s youth who may face peer pressure to lighten their skin and are increasingly caught up in the idea that with lighter skin, they will have a better life. The growth in skin bleaching in Nigeria can be attributed to colourism, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as ‘prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group’. Nigerian society elevates the status of lighter skin people, romanticising fair women and deeming them as more attractive, marriage-worthy and fortunate than their dark-skinned peers.
Another problem I have with the cream is the possibility for misuse, despite the claim by the business that their products are aimed to help with hyper pigmentation. Hyper pigmentation is defined by the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology as a ‘common, usually harmless condition in which patches of skin become darker in colour than the normal surrounding skin. This darkening occurs when an excess of melanin, the brown pigment that produces normal skin colour, forms deposits in the skin’. Dermatologists are usually sought out by women who suffer from hyper pigmentation. They prescribe specific medication depending on the situation. Dencia has stated that Whitenicious is a ‘safe’ dermatologically tested option which she herself uses to help with dark spots and hyper pigmentation. She has mentioned that in reality dermatologists may in fact prescribe someone drugs which contain a low percentage of hydroquinone (which Whitenicious does not contain) to help with the issue.
Even so, I would argue that the dermatologist-prescribed medication is regulated by regular checkups to ensure that it only affects the specific area of hyper pigmentation. With a consumer product like Whitenicious which has a lightening effect (and in which posters show darker women becoming shades lighter following application) buyers may apply the product to more than the recommended amount on the entirety of their body, solely for lightening purposes. More research needs to be done to determine whether continual application in this way could result in the same extensive skin-lightening effect as dangerous bleaching creams.
A point made by supporters of skin lightening creams like Whitenicious is the condemnation of dark-skinned women who choose to lighten their skin but not of white people who tan their skin to darken it. The attack on dark-skinned women who make this choice but not white women is seen as a double standard. Regardless, it is important to note that tanning is temporary and gives one's skin a darker tone without exposing it to harmful UV rays. Although it is now often used for a glow effect, it has a natural biological function. I feel that it is important to recognise that unlike tanning, skin lightening is associated with women of colour achieving the unattainable goal of whiteness and accessing privilege due to their lighter skin.
Blac Chyna is not the only media personality who has supported Whitenicious. The popular Nigerian cross-dresser, Bobrisky has also endorsed the brand. Overall, I would argue that this shows the role of the cosmetic industry in capitalising on colourism and highlights the need to promote self-love and acceptance among dark-skinned women.