The Ebony Archives: ‘My Skin Was Once Dreadfully Drab!’

On Friday, I gushed a bit over the Ebony archives that are available online. As I perused them over the weekend, I found lots and lots to think about. For one, the visuals of the magazine were amazing. It was the Negro answer to Life magazine. Celebrity profiles, human interest stories, and dozens of images. The ads were just as visually appealing. Well, some were appalling.

Most appalling are the prominent skin lightening ads. There were so many that I spent a few hours compiling my ‘favorites.’ Oddly, despite their prevalence, most of the skin bleaches weren’t advertised to change skin tone overall; they were ostensibly created to lighten dark skin patches like elbows, age spots, and acne scars. But in contrast, the imagery on most of those ads was a latte-colored face, accompanied by euphemisms for whiter skin like a promised “brighter” and “creamier” complexion. And nearly all of them swore that the product would create an ‘even tone.’ It almost seems like the advertisers knew their buyers weren’t using the creams on their elbows, but they also knew that promoting an outright desire to be white was unacceptable.

This dual deception is almost entertaining. It was also the norm for personal care ads (Massengill, Norforms, etc.) for decades. Both producer and consumer knew what the product was really for, but neither wanted to admit it.

Anyway, on to the ads.

First up, while it seems that by the 60s, products that glorified total skin lightening were out of vogue, in 1959, there was this gem:

In 1962, there was even a skin cream called “White’s Specific.” Sure, the company may have been founded by someone named White. But it also is a convenient moniker for a skin bleacher:

In 1964, there was this ad, with extremely fair women who apparently just need help with a few dark spots. Like their necks:

But I think my favorite ad from the 60s was this 1966 sheet, which featured two black women flanking a radiant white woman. It advertised three products, one for dry skin, placed under darkest of the three; one for oily skin, placed below the medium toned black woman; and one for ‘skin discolorations,’ presumably a lightener, placed below the white lady.

By the 70s, skin lightener had been relegated to tiny ads on pages that looked almost like classifieds. I’m not sure if this was due to lower demand, or because the magazine had decided to stop running them so prominently. It may be a combination of both, as, after all, this was the decade that proclaimed black was beautiful, and the ratio of the magazine’s light skinned cover models to darker skinned models essentially flipped.

But now that bleaching creams have fallen out of favor* here in the U.S., it would seem that all is pretty much well. Except, as PhillyGrrrl at Sepia Mutiny noted, it’s not. Colorism is so prevalent in parts of South Asia and that you see ads like this:

*Of course, that’s not to say skin bleachers have disappeared. Today, you can get them anywhere from Sephora to Amazon.

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  • G.D.

    These are amazing. wow.

  • Syreeta

    wow! it’s so insane looking at these too and having don draper, pete campbell and peggy olson running through the back of my head. however, india isn’t the only place where you see skin cream spiking in sales. a photographer friend who has an upcoming show has been documenting dancehall culture in jamaica, and there’s a ‘revival’ of sorts with skin lightener. a trend that’s argued by its users as an aesthetic and part of the theater of it all.

  • rikyrah

    these are very disturbing. And, the thing is, bring this up to folks overseas about what it means in relation to self-hatred and White Supremacy, and they wanna shoot you.

    just ask Sammy Sosa.

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  • Kevin

    I’m not trying to start any kind of argument, and I agree with the author that these ads are deeply creepy. What I don’t get is exactly how skin-lightening is appalling, but hair-straightening is totally no big deal. I’m still amazed at the degree to which hair relaxers/straighteners are very much the norm for black women. (I’m not sure about black guys, but I get the impression it’s not nearly as common.) Isn’t that pretty much the same thing – attempting to look like something you’re not, with the understanding being that the way you are isn’t as good?

    Maybe I’m wrong – I don’t know. I’m sure if I am, I’ll be corrected very quickly. : )

    • shani-o

      Look, those things are, historically, inextricably linked. Today, I think, more often than not, hair styling is a sign of creativity and personal expression…but, of course, that’s because straightening is so prevalent that it’s almost lost its context of the historical aversion of black, nappy hair. Almost. I don’t think the same can be said for skin lightening at all.

      As an aside, my hair was permed straight most of my life until the last year and a half. I went nappy out of boredom, and as a child, I didn’t make a conscious choice to ‘look like something I’m not’ when I was permed.

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  • Lala

    Weird, that’s something else Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson have in common.
    Just kidding, but seriously, that looks like Liz Taylor.

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