THE POLITICS AND POWER OF PALE
For a long time in the history of cosmetics throughout Europe and the Far East, the prevailing trend was, if not exactly the same, then a variation on one central theme: pale skin. This was achieved through a variety of creams, ointments, and cosmetics that were meant to lighten and even out the appearance.
It’s inevitably a sensitive topic to discuss, but skin lightening has been practiced in certain parts of the world for thousands of years. From the Greek lead-basedpsimuthion to the practice of bloodletting and the infamous Venetian ceruse (recognizable as that white powder you often see aristocrats wearing in sixteenth-century period dramas), there is a wide-ranging and cross-cultural tradition of lightening one’s skin in order to fit into a beauty-based, cultural, or social ideal. And if there’s one thing that many of these methods had in common, it’s that they were all extremely dangerous damaging to both one’s skin and general health.
Walk through the cosmetics aisle of any department store in any big city today, and you’ll be struck by the dizzying array of products that all promise to deliver a luminous, even complexion and brighter hue, regardless of the individual user’s skin tone or ethnicity. These days, placing a leech behind your ear would be seen as quackery, but it’s impossible not to wonder how closely related modern skin-brightening cosmetics are to the many historical methods for attaining lighter skin. Perhaps more importantly, we should ask where this desire came from, and how it has changed over time.
It’s interesting that cultures that had no knowledge of each other’s existence, such as ancient Greece and ancient China, not only used similar lead-based ingredients in their skin-lightening cosmetics but also shared the same desire to use these products in the first place. Skin color is of course linked with race, but, although it’s not something we might consciously think about, skin tone is also closely connected to gender. Regardless of ethnicity, women tend to be paler than men, as they have less hemoglobin (the red pigment in blood) and melanin (the brown pigment in skin and hair) in their body. Skin tone is also a signifier of fertility, a point that evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff makes, noting that the difference in skin tone between boys and girls occurs only at puberty and that thereafer women are lighter during ovulation than during the infertile days of their cycle. She also observes that a woman’s hair and skin tend to be permanently darkened after the first pregnancy, forever changing the girlish complexion of youth.1 Light (or lighter) skin is therefore a symbol of youth and a signifier of the fact that a woman hasn’t had a child, which, antiquated though it may seem now, is something that has been traditionally prized in the past.
Of course the suggestion of fertility isn’t the only explanation as to why lighter skin has been so consistently sought afer over time. Before tanning became fashionable, skin that showed no effects of sun exposure was directly tied to social status, particularly for women, whose place throughout history has more ofen than not been cloistered and confined to the home. The desire for alabaster skin can be traced back to before the semi-legendary times of the Trojan War and is mentioned in the epic poems of Homer, in which the goddess Hera is described approvingly as white armed. More evidence survives from the golden age of Greek culture and particularly from Athens, enabling us to reconstruct both what Greek women applied to their skin and something of the social conventions that surrounded the use of makeup. We know that a white or pale complexion was associated with upper-class women, who spent the vast majority of their time indoors, away from the skin-darkening sun. The Greeks made their own skin lightener from lead carbonate, as Greek philosopher, and observer of chemistry, Theophrastus describes in his treatise On Stones: