Blackfishing and Skin Bleaching: Why do Celebrities Want to Change their Skin Color?

We review a problematic trend in the entertainment industry for years

If you’ve ever felt that a celebrity’s skin color seems to change, you’re not making it up. These are trends that indeed exist, involve their own cosmetic procedures, and have social causes. We’re talking about blackfishing and skin bleaching, two sides of the same coin.

Especially for women, aesthetic pressure and how they present themselves to the world are crucial for their careers. Not all have the same representation, with differentiating factors such as age, body type, and race: Black women have significantly less presence in the entertainment industry.

This is one reason experts justify the skin bleaching some celebrities undertake. For example, actress Zendaya received comments on social media for her pale complexion at the Met Gala. She is not alone in this; other stars like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Ciara, and Rihanna are also part of this list.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of a radical skin color change is Michael Jackson. Throughout his career, Jackson’s skin color lightened significantly alongside his cosmetic surgeries, eventually becoming entirely white. According to Jackson, this change was due to vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder causing skin depigmentation. However, his explanation has been questioned since vitiligo typically appears irregularly in patches.

There are various methods for skin bleaching, most carrying health risks. These are not exclusive to celebrities; many people, especially women, follow suit in several countries in Africa, America, and Asia, although Europe has stricter regulations. Skin bleaching products come in many forms, including pills, creams, and sprays (available on platforms like Amazon, Walmart, or local stores), as well as laser treatments.

The side effects of these products are serious. Due to high mercury content, long-term use can discolor the skin and cause issues such as gastric irritation, kidney problems, neurological issues, or infections like pneumonia. Another ingredient, hydroquinone, can metabolize into carcinogenic derivatives and cause genetic changes, damaging DNA. It is associated with nephrotoxicity and leukemia due to the presence of benzene in bone marrow, as well as the potential to develop carcinomas.

Michael Jackson performs live on stage, Jerudong Park, Brunei, July 16 1996. Phil Dent/Redferns

Interestingly, many of these products are marketed as a way to achieve greater social capital, promoting recognition and economic mobility. This claim has some validity since the widespread use of these methods is rooted in racial discrimination, manifesting as colorism. The degree of exclusion a person of color experiences is proportional to how dark their skin is. Hence terms like «passing,» used for Black people whose lighter skin allows them to «pass» as white and access greater social privileges.

«White supremacy stratifies Black people into a hierarchy where lighter-skinned individuals are generally considered more intelligent, trustworthy, less dangerous, and, if not entirely human, more human than darker-skinned people. Light-skinned people experience racism, but we experience less compared to darker-skinned people,» wrote researcher Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on the platform Afroféminas for Black and Afro-descendant women.

What is Backfishing?

In line with the aforementioned discussion, blackfishing also responds to these racial hierarchies that unfortunately permeate all areas of society, including the entertainment industry. Blackfishing, a term coined by hip-hop journalist Wanda Thompson, refers to the strategic appropriation of Black people’s aesthetic elements, such as skin tone, facial modifications (e.g., lip enhancement), body alterations, and specific hairstyles.

This trend, followed by white celebrities like the Kardashian sisters, Ariana Grande, and Iggy Azalea, can also be explained through colorism. Black women may be discriminated against for their features or style, but these elements become innovative aesthetic options for white women. In reality, blackfishing is a form of blackface and cultural appropriation. A clear example is African braids or timini braids, a hairstyle with significant historical meaning for Afro-descendant people.

«Search ‘ghetto hairstyles’ on Google, and the seventh image is a guy with ‘timini’ braids. However, a white girl gets the same hairstyle, and suddenly it’s transgressive, different, unique, innovative, etc. When one stops to think about it, you conclude that everything ‘Black’ is beautiful, as long as it isn’t worn by a Black person,» explained journalist Antonina Cupe on the subject.

In conclusion, both blackfishing and skin bleaching adhere to the same logic and highlight the differential social treatment people receive based on their skin color. This discrimination extends to the celebrity world, and we continue to see its effects today.