It happens every now and again. Lil' Kim posts a selfie, announces a show, or promotes a club appearance, and the internet goes wild—not about her music, but about how she looks. Over the years, the rapper and fashion icon has undergone drastic changes before our eyes, whitening her skin and undergoing surgery to alter her facial features. And every step of the way, the public has been there to comment.
When Lil' Kim revealed her most drastic transformation yet—in a selfie collage posted on Instagram late last month—the responses ranged from disappointment, to sadness, to schadenfreude, to a fair amount of thoughtful discourse. But why should anyone be surprised when, really, Lil' Kim’s new look is a direct result of the toxic societal expectations placed on women of color, taken to their logical extreme?
Part of why Lil' Kim’s appearance has continued to dominate headlines for almost two weeks is a testament to just how many complex societal forces are at play when we look at her face. “Lil' Kim’s body signals a crisis of intersectional racism, classism, and sexism, especially if you look at it with a very particular lens of media or music,” Meeta Jha, author of The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body, told me.
Keep in mind that, in many ways, the reaction to Kim's lightening—specifically the outrage and perhaps some of the mockery—was uniquely American. In Asian and African countries, skin lighteners are used openly, considered no less mainstream than anti-wrinkle creams in the United States—despite the fact that many such products have known health risks, ranging from acne to mercury poisoning to cancer. A 2008 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report found that 77% of Nigerian women used skin-lightening products. While American women of color might cringe at seeing the word “whitening” on a label, Garnier’s White Complete and Pond’s Flawless White number among India’s most popular cosmetics lines. Just last year, a Korean skincare brand got in trouble over an ad asking U.S. consumers, “Want to be white?”
The United States, of course, has a unique history surrounding skin color, racism and beauty. The Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s shed light on the implicit racism of Eurocentric beauty standards, celebrating all aspects of black beauty. But—surprise, surprise—it’s not like racism and colorism ended there. Beauty standards continue to hinge on proximity to whiteness.
American skincare and makeup brands—as well as the American branches of brands that sell lightening creams in other countries—largely avoid using “white” language in their advertising. But spoiler alert: The “brightener” you use on your dark spots is intended to lighten the skin.
“I think most people in the U.S. wouldn’t want to say that they want to lighten their skin,” Margaret Hunter, professor of sociology at Mills College, told me over the phone. “They wouldn’t say that they want to be white. But the beauty regime in the U.S. and globally is about whiteness. And we’re all subject to the power of that. It’s such an all-encompassing beauty discourse that impacts women of color very, very dramatically.”
America's comparative racial diversity is also an important factor. If an Indian woman—who could belong to any of the thousands of ethnic groups in that country—lightens her skin, there's no sense that she's distancing herself from her race or her heritage. She’s still Indian, and the lightening would be considered cosmetic. But in the U.S., a black woman's choice to lighten her skin is perceived as charged with meaning. In a Eurocentric culture where whiteness is treated as the default, to whiten skin signifies as an erasure of blackness, an erasure of race and heritage.
“And I think some of [the criticism], especially from [black people], is about feeling like there’s something kind of anti-black context to what she’s doing, but that assumes a rigidity to race identity that I don’t think is true,” Hunter said of Lil' Kim.
Hunter explained that, on the one hand, Lil' Kim’s appearance is a performance of whiteness that seems over the top, but on the other, the idea that Lil' Kim is embodying whiteness assumes a very limited definition of blackness.
“I wouldn’t want to interpret every time women of color dye our hair blond or alter our appearance [in a way] that makes us look more Anglo as internalized racism or self-hate, although that’s part of what’s going on,” Hunter said. "Part of it also, for everyday women, is a practical, rational response to a job market that discriminates against darker-skinned women.”
“There’s plenty of research on how the employment market and even the marriage market and social networking is much more difficult for women who have darker facial features,” Jha explained.
On top of that, Lil' Kim has spoken before about the beauty expectations she has personally grappled with. In light of her drastic change, last week, many publications recirculated a Newsweek interview she gave in 2000, in which she directly addressed her plastic surgery:
“Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, 'How I can I compete with that?' Being a regular black girl wasn't good enough."
Considered in the vacuum of America's poisonous cocktail of racism, classism, sexism, Lil' Kim’s decisions are not irrational. “It’s about what is allowed for femininity,” Jha told me. “It's the absence of blackness as femininity.”
“I don’t like to see [Lil' Kim's transformation] as an individual problem, but as a response to a larger cultural imperative,” Hunter said.
A black woman altering the color of her skin, undergoing surgery to make her facial features look more European, and changing her hair isn’t crazy. Beauty standards that exclusively reward whiteness—and actively penalize blackness—are crazy.