The unbearable whiteness of beauty
Maxine Clarke on body image and race
I am six years old, at Wednesday afternoon gymnastic class. We’re standing, ten or so of us, in assorted eighties-cut leotards on the white line across the auditorium floor. My frosted pink leotard looks sickly Mission Home against my coffee-bean skin. Our instructor, a no-nonsense redhead in her early fifties, is inspecting our ‘first positions’. Toes out girls, heels touching. She walks behind us wielding a table-tennis paddle from the upstairs recreation room, taps the paddle lightly on my behind. Bottoms in. I thrust my pelvis forward.
Bottom in, sweetie, bottom in.
My fellow pee-wee gymnasts titter in perfectly buttock-tucked penguin stances. It’s a repeat of the last three lessons, though I’ve practised all week in my mother’s full-length mirror. The Khoekhoe women of southern Africa, known as the Hottentots on colonisation, became famous for their round, raised behinds. At the moment, however, I know nothing of the Khoekhoe. I am a freak: the only little girl in the country whose bottom does not align neatly with her thighs when in first position. I am deformed, and will probably need some kind of bottom-trimming operation.
It isn’t until my mother takes me to a dermatologist that I even realise patches of my skin are lightening. My mother and father worry late into the night about this strange condition. I inevitably sneak a peek at the reading material they’re given.
The photographs are other-worldly: images of marbled pink and brown people. Apparently, I will soon be one of them. The marbled people seem, to eight-year-old eyes, to be brown people in varying stages of becoming white. Eventually my light brown patches will turn pink. Eventually that pinkness will creep round my body. Eventually, I am certain, I will emerge from the vitiligo white: free from golliwog jokes, ‘bad’ hair and untuckable bottom. My grade three teacher will stop waiting for me to become good at sport. I will not be banned from playmates’ houses. Stephen Lewis will kiss me behind the long-jump pit at lunchtime.
Oh, how I will leap herds and trample gates to get to that emerald grass!
My skin evens out several months later, chocolate as ever – and I am bitterly disappointed.
I breathe through my mouth, but it doesn’t stop the wheezing. The smell’s so potent my nostril hairs frizzle. A crawling sensation starts just above my right ear, an annoying itch that spreads across my scalp. I raise my hand and Charlie saunters across the floor of the small Granville salon, camp in his spray-on black jeans. Miss? I screw up my face. It feels a bit funny.
Oh. Just tingling? Charlie asks casually. It’s not burning yet? I stare at him in the mirror as he inspects my hair. It’s not burning yet. What does he mean, it’s not burning yet? Charlie pats me on the shoulder. Not to worry darling, it will just feel a little hot.
Five minutes later my entire scalp is burning up like fire. Take it off please. I want you to wash it off.
Charlie stares at me, furious. I can’t take it off now darling, it’ll be half done.
Tears start gathering. It’s burning. Right down my neck.
Charlie takes a deep breath. It’s supposed to do that, honey.
The pain is almost blinding, but I want to trust Charlie. I need to trust Charlie, he is a god. For the right price, at Afrique Ali hair salon in Blacktown or Newtown, you can score thread-thin waist-length braids. Salon de Dreadlock in Fairfield can fix you up with a weave so close it will stick for a half-year: natural hair braided to the scalp in millimetre-thin cornrows, with reams of straight extensions sewn tight into the braid to create a semi-permanent wig. But Greek Charlie is the real magician. Charlie is the only man in western Sydney who can give a brown girl Chinese Straight. And that’s exactly what I’m buying with the money I was given for my sixteenth birthday: Chinese Straight. I have to trust Charlie. Charlie is going to tuck my bottom, for real.
Just a few more minutes sweetie, I’ll take it off a little early, I promise. To try and take my mind off my hair, Charlie makes small talk. You got a special occasion coming up?
No, not really. I’m going to a pool party tomorrow though.
Charlie’s jaw drops. He looks mortified. You’re going swimming after this magic? You’re not supposed to wash your hair for two weeks. It will be ruined. Oh darling. Why didn’t you come after the party?
By the time Charlie is massaging in the neutraliser to stop the chemical reaction of the African Pride hair straightening solution, the damage is done: a raw scalp including three hairless pink patches the size of fifty cent coins stretching from my hairline down to my neck.
I sit poolside at the fourteenth-birthday party the next day, make-up covering the chemical burn, my six-inch lion’s-mane afro converted into stiff strands. Sure enough, it lies flat on my head – once I’ve smeared on the strong-hold hair grease Charlie bought me off with.
Adia’s family migrated from Sierra Leone some six or so years back, fleeing the violence of the civil war. She works for a bank, or insurance company, during the week, and this under-the-counter braiding gig in the garage of her rental property in Sydney’s inner west takes her weekends. The extra money, presumably, goes back to family in Sierra Leone.
Sorry ’bout the garage, eh? Adia grunts at me, gesturing around us at the gappy freestanding brick structure with its oil-stained concrete floor and old cans of paint stacked up in one corner. Husband say he don’ like de hair all ova de house. It’s the middle of winter and although I’m wearing a heavy sweater and jeans the cold bounces off concrete floor. The bare wooden chair I’m sitting on is also mighty uncomfortable. Adia looks at me like she’s not sorry at all, like maybe I could do with a little discomfort, maybe 180 dollars worth of it.
She opens the first plastic packet of hair, holding one end of the black strands so they fall like a long Indian ponytail. She then proceeds to divide the wad of polyester extensions into small reams about a half centimetre thick and twenty centimetres long, draping them in sections about four centimetres apart over a small coffee table next to the chair I’m sitting on. The comb she uses to section my hair feels like sharp steel scraping against my scalp, and the place where the extension hair is knotted to the roots of my own hair aches when she starts each plait. The plait has to be tight, she assures me. Otherwise, you going to be back here in two months. It’s plait ten, and there are several hundred more to come. I try not to think about Greek Charlie.
Adia’s not very talkative, which proves unfortunate, because my afro is thick and the braiding takes seven and a half hours. By the time my mother shows up, my legs are numb both from the cold and the immobility, and my neck is sore with the weight of the extra hair.
Have you been out here all this time? My mother’s clearly shocked.
The hair gets all over the house and my husband don’ like it. My mother’s eyes meet mine, quiet. Adia stands there expectantly and I fish around in my bag for the envelope. One hundred and eighty dollars is a lot of money for me – weekends and weekends, in fact, of cash-in-hand work as an assistant at the local hairdresser. Adia looks stunned, offended almost, that a young woman of seventeen is handing her such a fee. It smells of spoilt brat, and I suddenly have the urge to blurt out that I have earned the money myself, that we are, in fact, a struggling single-parent household of four. And then I think about Adia’s husband inside, and her family back home. I start thinking that 180 dollars, divided by seven and a half hours, minus the cost of six packets of extension hair is not an awful lot of money, even undeclared.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning, and I’m trying to shovel Weetbix into my seven-month-old’s mouth. He has other ideas, using his tongue to push the goop back out of his mouth and down his chin. My partner wanders in from the balcony of my sister’s swanky pad in Southfields, London, and asks where she’s disappeared to.
Hairdresser. He takes over the goop-scooping.
That was last weekend.
She goes every Saturday.
John rolls his eyes towards me. Haha.
I stare back at him. I’m serious.
My sister is a stunning and ferocious career woman: publicist for the European arm of MTV International. Her hair is chemically straightened on a monthly basis, and requires special maintenance. She skips continents weekly, is in the public eye most of the time, babysitting Osbournes or shooting the breeze with Black Eyed Peas. What, he expects her to wash her own hair?
My sister’s partner walks into the room, home from the gym. The lady still at the hairdresser?
I raise an eyebrow at John, smirking. It’s only hours later, running a hand over my buzz-cut afro in the bathroom mirror, that I realise how puzzled he must be. Several days later, on the way to my grandmother’s house in Tottenham, we stop at one of the many black beauty barns along Westgreen Road and he starts to get the idea.
In my early adolescence, the black beauty shops around western Sydney were always dark, dingy places run on the smell of an oily rag. There always seemed to be just one braid-twirling staff member on duty, flicking aimlessly through the latest copy of Black Hair and desperate to talk to the few black women wandering in. Dust outlines left by the plastic bags full of polyester and human hair, and tubs of chemical straightener and skin creams, indicated the low demand. Limited patronage meant, in those days, that new orders could be ferried in by the suitcase from the US, UK or the Continent by visiting relatives and friends.
Today, though, the shops don’t look the way I remember them from ten years back. It’s a Saturday morning and King Street, Newtown, is teeming with yippies (yuppy hippies): jade nose-studs, Grecian sandals and no-logo logos abound. Afrique Ali’s, which has three times the shelf and salon space I remember, is bustling. Over at the cocoa butters a barefoot woman with her baby in a fancy linen sling scrutinises the labels. Six braiders stand by the salon chairs, two around each customer. I stand in the doorway, blinking away surprise. The customers are white. Gothic white. All three young women are having their hair plaited finely to waist-length with shiny black polyester hair with varying colour highlights.
One of the African braiders makes her way over to me. I put my tub of Palmer’s Hair Food on the counter and count out the ten dollars. How much for the braiding?
The woman shifts uncomfortably from one foot to the other. Depends. You know, how long you want it, how thick the plaits and all that. I’m curious now. Just below shoulder length. About this thick. I pick up a half-centimetre thick demonstration braid from the counter. The woman looks over her shoulder. The other braiders are watching us. The three very white women in the chairs are watching us. Seven hundred.
Oh. Seven hundred dollars. For bob-length braids. I nod like: no sweat, seven hundred dollars, I could do that. She has to be shitting me. I pick up my hair product and hightail it out the door. The woman who’s just served me picks up her ciggies and lighter from the counter and follows me. Once on the sidewalk, she nods me over. Sister, black hair is easy, we can do for three hundred.
I stare at her. I’ll think about it.
The woman lights a cigarette, draws in.
How long do their braids stay in? I nod back towards the shop interior.
For them? Starts to get messy in about four weeks. All greasy and that.
Of course. Afro hair is dry in texture. So dry, in fact, that it requires oil to be added to it on a daily basis for malleability, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon hair, which is often the opposite. The fast, straight growth pattern of Anglo hair would also mean the new growth would be visible in a relatively short period. Our eyes meet and the chuckle rolls around her irises. I think about Adia and wonder what her rates are these days.
Hoài Thu Video, the first shop I walk into, like many shops along Hopkins Street, Footscray, sells a baffling array of products, from two-dollar eyeliner to dog baskets, though despite the name I can’t actually see any videos. I ask a browsing middle-aged Vietnamese woman if she knows where I can get skin bleaching cream, though I know I could walk into almost any ethnic beauty shop in Footscray and locate some.
The woman is confused.
You know, stuff to make my skin white.
She looks me up and down, incredulously. You want to get white? You not going get white. Skin like you, not get white. Maybe my skin get white. Yours is never going white.
So much for that then.
But scanning the shelves, I come across a large white tub of Best Quality Boba White Milky Cream Bath, with Vitamins & Whitening Complex. The front of the bottle features a dreamy illustration with the same fuzzy vaseline-lensed glamour as The Young and the Restless camera shots: a suspiciously strawberries-and-cream- complexioned Asian woman bathes in a splash of ivory milk, with an even whiter lamb grazing on luscious green grass in the foreground.
The Chàu Office Intell store on Leeds Street, Footscray which, strangely enough, appears to be primarily a tobacconist, stocks the same product, as White Cream Bath. It’s packaged like any shower gel, and contains mulberry powder, sunscreen, pearl powder and goats’ milk. I’m later to find out, though, that even so-called natural whiteners can be harmful.
On adjacent Nicholson Street the two chador clad women behind the counter of Asmarina’s Beauty and Grocery Supplies knowingly smirk as I peruse the five or so rows of skin bleaching products. I have never seen skin bleaches before in this volume in Australia, though I know the black beauty stores in London and the States are stacked with them.
I’m on my lunchbreak from work, and suddenly I feel painfully aware of my conservative grey pinafore, matching jacket and polished court shoes. I am the bottom-tucking type. I’m nauseated by the perception.
I help you, sister? One of the women approaches me.
Panicking, I breathlessly start quizzing her about the bleaching products. Which product is strongest? Fastest working? Safest? Most expensive?
The woman, mistaking my stammering for embarrassment, smiles reassuringly. What is wanting to lighten?
I stare at her, confused. My skin, of course. She tries again. Which part of the body the cream is for?
Which part … um … My, uhh, my face?
She seems satisfied and directs me to a cream on the far shelves. This one is here better for face. Not leaving patches.
Bile rises in my throat. The woman, seeing my alarm, pats my arm reassuringly. Cream that is leaving patches is sometime okay for the knee and elbow which is needing stronger cream.
I select five bleaching products at random, spread them over the top of the counter and start reading the packages. Have you ever heard of these creams causing cancer? I read something somewhere … suddenly, the charade is exhausting. Actually, I’m writing an article about skin bleaching and black beauty products.
The woman steps away from the counter, as if propelled by a violent blow. With her back up against the wall, she folds her arm over her chest and looks towards the back storeroom, where her fellow shop assistant has disappeared.
So, how many of these do you sell a day?
Her face clouds over. You get out. I not being here to answering any question. Where you from? I suddenly feel, despite the disguise of my blackness, like a presumptuous impostor, and the vilest of cultural tourists.
I scrabble for words. Can you tell me how much these all are? She glares at me, arms still folded . You tell me which one you going buy, I tell you the price. Otherwise, you go away.
I think for a moment. I’m curious now, to know how much they’ll set me back. I’m thinking of buying all of them. She unfolds her arms and walks forward to the counter. Seven. Three. Ten. Ten. Fifteen. She jabs her forefinger at each of the packages and holds out her right palm, challengingly. Money in the till, she suddenly softens towards me, looks me up and down again. What your job is?
I’m a writer.
She’s clearly checking out my threads. Your real job, sister, what you do for the money. Right. I hesitate, thinking the situation is about to get a whole lot stickier. But the door’s only a few metres away and I’ve bought what I came for. I’m a lawyer.
Her eyebrows arc in surprise. Next time you come back here, you come with the lawyer card and we will talk. I will tell you things then. Maybe then we are helping each other.
Through the locked glass door of Nat’s African Hair Products and Accessories two doors down, I can see that the bleaching products are stacked decoratively on the closest shelf to the door, and resolve to return later to investigate.
Two hundred metres around the corner, a chadored Somalian woman is perched on the front step of her nameless beauty shop, talking on the phone. I squeeze past her and make for the skin creams. There are fewer bleaching products here and I’m being watched very carefully. Uhuh. Yep. Yes, that would be the one. The woman’s eyes follow me as she talks into the receiver. I get the feeling she might be talking to my skittish friend at Asmarina’s, and instinctively move away from the bleaching creams and over to the hair products.
I select a small tub of sticky, green Palmer’s Hair Food, which I’m running low on anyway. A child sits bored in his stroller by the counter. He hurls his Transformer at my feet, smiles at me expectantly. I retrieve it, and sure enough he fires again. How old?
She softens. Just over three.
I nod, knowingly. Mine too. I roll my eyes. Next year the government going to pay for kinder. Did you know they will pay for it? Only when they are four, though. Now he is three, it is too expensive.
We start comparing notes, as mothers do.
After a while she watches my gaze wander over
to the small selection, four or so, of skin bleaching
We have only four selling here.
Who buys them?
She pauses, looks me steadily in the face for several seconds. Nearly everybody who is coming in.
The six bleaching products are spread out across my bathroom counter: Fair & Lovely Total Fairness Cream for the Face and Neck; Crème Eclaircissante Knee & Elbow Lightening Cream; Silky Whitening Facial Scrub; Yoko Face Whitening Cream; Boba White Milky Cream Bath Soak; and SH.18 Natural Organic Lightening Serum. I look myself hard in the mirror, screw open the small tub of Silky Whitening. The facial scrub inside is a glittering opaque white like liquid pearl, and the texture of sticky mucus. The cream smells overpoweringly of citrus and honey, but my chest contracts when I breathe in the chemical cocktail the fragrance is disguising.
I close the lid and screw the top off the Natural Organic Lightening Serum, the most friendly looking of all the products, packaged in a small glass bottle like some kind of eucalyptus or tea-tree oil. I dab a bit on a cotton bud, carefully smear it over my little toe and wait.
Bleaching products are in high demand for coloured women across the Western world and also in the West Indies, South America, Asia and Africa. Those who can afford it buy the marketed product; those who can’t mix their own from standard face creams and household bleach or products such as toothpaste, toilet bleach and lemon juice. There’s a consensus that the more the stuff burns, the greater its effect.
As if the potential for permanent scarring isn’t enough of a deterrent, there’s also the very real risk of cancer or chemical poisoning. Many commercial topical skin bleachers contain toxic levels of mercury (the smallest amount of which can cause neurological damage) in addition to hydroquinone, a melanin-blocker that does not in itself whiten the skin but inhibits the body’s creation of melanin.
Hydroquinone is known to cause leukaemia in animal testing, and has been banned across the European Union and in places such as Jamaica, where the problem of skin bleaching is such that the government has initiated a Don’t Kill The Skin awareness campaign damning the practice.
The banning of skin bleaching products containing substances either known to poison the blood or suspected of causing terminal illness has created an underground trade, which I suspect is proving even more dangerous than the over-the-counters previously available. In some online forums, black women are fiercely defending their desire to be lighter, claiming that to attribute this desire to self-hatred is in itself discriminatory, when so many white public figures tan their skin without fanfare.
After five hours of trawling the internet, bouncing from exposé to exposé, chatroom to chatroom, I start to feel nauseated and depressed. Is it just my imagination, or is my little toe now burning with a cool, ice-like sensation? I retrieve the bottle for the SH.18 Natural Organic Lightening Serum which has been completely absorbed into my skin, and start googling the ingredients.
The organic formula contains, among other nasties, Aspergillus ferment, a fungus compound of questionably safety that inhibits melanin. It also contains high levels of various botanical extracts that concentrate arbutin, a natural melanin inhibitor found in the bearberry and mulberry plants and in small quantities in other foods such as wheat and pear skins. Bans on skin bleaching products do not generally prohibit the inclusion of arbutin, but research has shown that intestinal bacteria can, in fact, transform arbutin into the banned substance hydroquinone, leaving users at higher risk of intestinal cancer. It’s not my lucky day. As a sufferer of Crohn’s disease, I am already in a high-risk category for this kind of cancer.
The six containers of bleaching products are put out for the garbage collectors. I soak my poor little toe in hot water for as long as possible, and drink three litres of water in an attempt to somehow flush the ingredients from my body.
I stare at myself in the bathroom mirror. My buzz cut is growing out. I think I might forego my monthly cut, and slowly coax my lion’s-mane afro back. I turn to the side, and my bottom cheeks curve out in profile, like two giant mixing bowls. Steatopygia is the medical term cosmetic surgeons have coined for the bottoms of Hottentot descendants. The so-called affliction is treated primarily with the removal of buttock fat by both deep and superficial liposuction. I might just hang on to mine – and abandon all attempts at first position.
Maxine Clarke is a Caribbean-Australian poet based in Melbourne. She has a background in copyright and human rights law and has written for many publications, including the Age, Crikey, Koori Mail and the Big Issue.
© Maxine Clarke
Overland 196-spring 2009, pp. 13–20
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