Beneath the Surface

A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners

Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: 85 illustrations (incl. 39 in color) Published: January 2020

Author: Thomas, Lynn M.

African Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > African History

For more than a century, skin lighteners have been a ubiquitous feature of global popular culture—embraced by consumers even as they were fiercely opposed by medical professionals, consumer health advocates, and antiracist thinkers and activists. In Beneath the Surface, Lynn M. Thomas constructs a transnational history of skin lighteners in South Africa and beyond. Analyzing a wide range of archival, popular culture, and oral history sources, Thomas traces the changing meanings of skin color from precolonial times to the postcolonial present. From indigenous skin-brightening practices and the rapid spread of lighteners in South African consumer culture during the 1940s and 1950s to the growth of a billion-dollar global lightener industry, Thomas shows how the use of skin lighteners and experiences of skin color have been shaped by slavery, colonialism, and segregation as well as by consumer capitalism, visual media, notions of beauty, and protest politics. In teasing out lighteners’ layered history, Thomas theorizes skin as a site for antiracist struggle and lighteners as a technology of visibility that both challenges and entrenches racial and gender hierarchies.


Beneath the Surface is nothing short of a tour de force. Lynn M. Thomas's ‘layered history’ does justice to the immensely difficult subject of skin lighteners. Carefully attending to the complex politics of race and color that are grounded in skin, Thomas at once provides a vibrant history of South Africa and a global history of commodity, beauty, and the body. This landmark study sets a new standard in the field.” — Julie Livingston, author of Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa

“Allowing for a comparative analysis over a period of time when the global relationships and meanings of skin color became tied to class, race, and racism, Beneath the Surface helps us understand the intense and long-standing interest whites and blacks have had in lightening the color of their skin despite the potential for severe health risks. There is simply no other book like it.” — Noliwe M. Rooks, author of Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women

"Thomas explores, with nuance and sensitivity how skin whitening/lightening figured into precolonial concepts of beauty, how these practices took on new forms during the colonial and apartheid eras, and how they endure in a neoliberal democratic South Africa." — Cara Moyer-Duncan, Africa Is a Country

"Beneath the Surface makes a necessary contribution to [a] small pool of work on beauty and geography as Thomas' analysis integrates these subjects in considering the (trans)national politics and racial inequalities that uphold skin lightening.… This book would appeal to both undergraduate and graduate students as well as scholars interested in beauty, geopolitics, race, and colonialism." — Meena Pyatt, Gender, Place & Culture

"Beneath the Surface adds a scholarly dimension to a deeply personal and political issue about the skin we live in.… The nexus between the political and the personal implications of this history raises many questions for future research." — Dr Athambile Masola, Journal of Contemporary African Studies

“Moving chronologically from precolonial South Africa to the 20th century, the author accomplishes her goal of historically elucidating the ‘chain of causes’ that animate skin-altering practices. The text is successful in other aspects as well, specifically how Thomas highlights transnational movements of black bodies and images, making visible the ways ideas of blackness circulate in the world, and illustrating that not only white ideals travel. Similarly, by including discussions of the history of body surface manipulations by white Europeans and South Africans, the author debunks popular notions that anchor preoccupation with skin color, primarily in black communities.” — K. Gentles-Peart, Choice

“Thomas resourcefully assembles and interweaves sources connecting popular, business, medical and political culture. …. Beneath the Surface would be an engaging key text for students to study a history of race and gender within everyday global beauty cultures.” — Fabiola Creed, Metascience


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Lynn M. Thomas is Professor of History at the University of Washington; coeditor of The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, also published by Duke University Press; and author of Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
A Layered History  1
1. Cosmetic Practices and Colonial Crucibles  22
2. Modern Girls and Racial Respectability  47
3. Local Manufacturing and Color Consciousness  75
4. Beauty Queens and Consumer Capitalism  98
5. Active Ingredients and Growing Criticism  150
6. Black Consciousness and Biomedical Opposition  190
Sedimented Meanings and Compounded Politics  221
Notes  237
Bibliography  293
Sales/Territorial Rights: World exc Southern Africa

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