There was a time when Lil’ Kim represented a brand of unapologetic self-love for black women. The kind that announced that we are sexual beings without shame or fear. She reflected what it might look like to be at once a woman, black, and sexually free. Visually, her body was a site for pleasure, most importantly her own.
Sonically, her lyrics offered us permission to explore our own bodies and our own pleasure. Lil’ Kim was our champion.
I’m not sure what she’s now championing. In a series of pictures she posted on Instagram, she is virtually unrecognizable.
While we have debated whether other celebrities like Beyoncé and Rihanna have actually lightened their skin or if the magazines that featured their images had photoshopped their complexions, with Kim, there surely can be little question.
It looks as though she has lightened her once black-girl-brown complexion to one that’s not so brown at all. Her hair is longer, straighter, blonder. Her once round nose now thin. Even her eyes sit differently on her face. She’s changed, in ways that words can’t even begin to capture. And it hurts.
Online, we’re trying to make sense of it (she has yet to say anything herself), wondering why she would do this to herself; yet we already we know why. We live in the same world she does. And all over that world, people of color use a variety of chemicals to lighten the complexion of their skin. In fact, wherever there are people of color—Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States—there is skin bleaching.
In places where the majority of the population has browner or darker skin, wearing relatively lighter skin provides social advantage; and for women particularly, the social advantage that comes with having lighter skin is being seen, and thus treated, as more beautiful and attractive.
If she has, we already know why Kim has lightened her skin. Added to society’s overall privileging of lighter skin, the music industry sends equally pointed messages about black women’s desirability with most visual renderings of popular music requiring that women be so light that they are essentially racially ambiguous: the less black looking, the more desirable.
We are witnessing Kim’s transformation into someone less-black and more desirable. She’s admitted to not feeling “pretty enough.” She’s reflected on having lovers cheat on her with women who were more “European looking.” We’re literally watching her attempt to create a new reality for herself.
Hers is an image that reminds us of the pervasive and insidious power of whiteness. We, as black women and girls, are assaulted by it every day. We’re told our skin is too dark, our hair is too kinky, our bodies are too big. We’re given options to change all of those things about ourselves—from skin lighteners, to chemical hair relaxers, to waist-trainers—yet so many of us resist.
We actively and consciously love our brown skin and embrace our black features. We fight hard to affirm ourselves and each other, not only because we want to, but because we have to. Otherwise, we, like Kim, would be out here wearing the pain on our faces.
As difficult as it may be, hers is a reflection that we have to face. Not only what she is reflecting to us about us, but what we are reflecting to her about her: bigger than hip-hop, bigger than Kim.