Whitening Creams, Sammy Sosa, and The Bluest Eye

Last Friday, the New York Times ran a story about skin-whitening creams, which contain harmful steroids, but are nonetheless widely available on the market. Of course, the marketing material for these creams doesn’t use words like “whitening.” Instead, a range of euphemisms is preferred, particularly in the United States—euphemisms such as “brightening” and “clearing” and “evening out.” But when I visited Asia and certainly in places like Morocco, I’ve seen these creams advertised with the more blunt term of “whitening.” One was called “White Perfect.” The article has a pretty shocking photo montage of baseball player Sammy Sosa, before and after treatment.

All this reminded me of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I am teaching this term in one of my classes. The book is a meditation on aesthetics, beauty, and the pervasiveness of a “white aesthetic,” in which white skin equals beauty and black skin does not. It’s also a deep look at what this type of uniformly available aesthetic does to the psyche of the little girl Pecola. One of the reasons I quite like this book is that it is frank and fearless in its exploration of aesthetic preferences, something that is often, whether consciously or unconsciously, silenced in literature.

(Image source: Fun with Dick and Jane.)