The insidious impact of mass media in shaping our identities and preferences goes way back and more than skin deep! Take this 78rpm South African Jazz record from 1956, singing the praises of skin lighteners and Vaseline. “Who’s that girl” … “the best looking girl I ever did see” performed by the "Basin Tone Drifters" and sung in the style of the Manhattan Brothers in English and Zulu extols the virtues of Pond’s Vanishing Cream and Blue Seal Vaseline.
A further twist in this fascinating early advertising tale is that the composer is registered under the pseudonym “Mafutha Amahlope” – literally meaning “Fat Whitey”. At least the real author Christoffel Nicolaas Du Toit had some sense of humour? The U.S. Library of Congress Catalogue of Published Music also records that Melody Music of Johannesburg registered these two songs on 1st October 1956.
Despite being banned in South Africa in 1986, skin lighteners are still used, and the broader debates around skin lightening, identity, beauty and aspirations continue. Going by a recent article in the Sowetan, these debates are changing though.
“More than ever South Africans are realising that black is beautiful. As a nation we have overcome the baasskap mentality that suggests that anything dark is ugly and therefore undesirable.
“Politically we are maturing and we are taking pride in who we are. This is filtering through to the modeling industry and the media,” Mazibuko says.
“We are beginning to appreciate our sisters who are as dark as the night, with short natural hair and prominent and fabulously full lips.”
More on the science and sociology of skin lightening here.