Lil' Kim has always been too big for boxes.
The original Queen Bee rose to prominence in the mid and late 1990s as the sole female member of Notorious B.I.G.'s Junior M.A.F.I.A. With her first solo album, Hard Core, she proved she could rap with the best of hip-hop's boy's club while unapologetically embracing her own sexuality, opening the doors for artists like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj — though Minaj and Lil' Kim do not get along — today.
Despite her undeniable imprint on the music and entertainment industry, some have noticed Lil' Kim looks almost completely unrecognizable today. In a recent Instagram post, Kim's once-brown skin now looks significantly lighter, and her features completely altered.
Lil' Kim has denied cosmetic surgery rumors for years. But the recent photo that surfaced on social media in late April has Lil' Kim as the center of a broader discussion about the pressures women of color face to obtain Eurocentric standards of beauty through practices like skin lightening, sometimes with deadly consequences.
Skin bleaching shows how much our society values white beauty standards
Lil' Kim's body image issues are no secret. In a 2000 interview with Newsweek she said:
I have low self-esteem and I always have. 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 can I compete with that?' Being a regular black girl wasn't good enough.
But there's more to the story than Lil' Kim's insecurities. Her evolving look personifies the insecurities of many women of color, living in a society that values Eurocentric standards of beauty. For some, that means attempting to lighten one's skin.
"Focusing on the occasional extreme celebrity examples of skin bleaching allows us to think about these issues as rare, as extreme, as unusual, as opposed to a lower level of constant messages about white standards of beauty," Mills College sociology professor Margaret Hunter told Vox.
Lil' Kim isn't the first black celebrity rumored to lighten his or her skin. Retired Chicago Cubs player Sammy Sosa admitted in 2010 that he was a long-time user skin lightening cream after a picture surfaced of him looking "ghost-like" at the 2009 Latin Grammies. Michael Jackson was also rumored to have bleached his skin — though it was complicated by his vitiligo diagnosis.
However, North Carolina Central University political science professor Yaba Blay noted that skin lightening grabs our attention because of the integral part skin plays in racial identities.
"Skin bleaching and lightening the skin becomes the [thing] that grabs our attention because skin color's such an unapologetic mark of someone's race," she said. "To change that, or attempt to change that, the automatic inference and assumption is that you hate yourself, and you don't want to be your race, without necessarily engaging what that color has come to symbolize in our society."
Fairer, pale skin has long been a status symbol that can be traced as far back as skin lightening's origins in mid-16th century Europe. The term "redneck" comes from associations made between skin color and class. Racism only further complicates this by holding people of color to a white standard of beauty they do not innately possess.
Hunter noted that comparisons are sometimes made between people of color bleaching their skin and white people tanning to prove no one is satisfied with the way they look. But tanning turns out to be an exception that proves that white beauty standards rule.
"When white people tan, they are not altering their whiteness," Hunter said. "Nobody is saying they're not white, and they are not trying to be a person of color. They're trying to be a certain kind of white person: a white person on vacation, a white person that has an active lifestyle."
The value of lighter and darker skin color changes depending on a person's race, almost exclusively denigrating women of color like Lil' Kim for features that are glorified on white women.
Countries have banned skin-lighteners for their damaging health effects
Pain is beauty, but skin bleaching tends to be one of the more dangerous regimens.
"I think one of the most common misconceptions about skin bleaching is that it's safe and it's just like other cosmetic procedures," Hunter said. "And I think that most of the public health researchers have shown that it actually isn't very safe and it can be really damaging, not just to your skin but to your other systems in your body."
The goal of skin-lightening agents is to stop the body from producing melanin. In the 19th century, white women consumed poisonous arsenic complexion wafers to make their skin more pale.
Today, researchers have pointed out the harmful effects of hydroquinone, a chemical found in skin lightening and bleaching agents that can cause itchy, burning skin. One of the other side effects of this chemical (which is also used to develop photos) is, ironically, skin darkening.
Other side effects of skin bleaching, generally, range from scabs to skin cancer.
Some governments have responded by outlawing products with hydroquinone. The European Union issued a ban on skin-lightening products that contain the chemical in 2001. Japan and Australia have similar bans. Products that contain hydroquinone are not banned in the US.
In 2014, the California Department of Public Health issued a warning against using creams that contain mercury, another agent used in some skin-lightening products. The state especially warned against products imported from other countries because of the lack of international consensus that do not necessarily match US Food and Drug Administration standards.
Côte d’Ivoire's health ministry banned all skin-lightening creams last year, warning that they had the potential to cause cancer.
The skin bleaching industry exploits racist beauty standards for a profit
Despite skin lightening's harmful physical effects, society's skewed beauty standards are the foundation of a profitable global market.
"So we're going to point fingers at, chastise, judge people who use the products without having a conversation about the people who make the products?" poses Blay. "It's so easy to focus on the individual without realizing the ways in which we are all participating in the system and the society that even encourages, and even makes it an option, for her to lighten her skin."
There are economic incentives to skin bleaching. For instance, a 2007 study found that lighter-skinned immigrants in the US earned 8 to 15 percent more than their darker-skinned counterparts.
These incentives target people of color, and inform the popularity of skin-bleaching products in specific regions of the world.
BBC News reported in 2010 that the skin-whitening cream industry in India was expanding at a rate of 18 percent each year and valued at $432 million. In 2011, the World Health Organization reported that 77 percent of women in Nigeria used skin-lightening products regularly, as did 40 percent of women in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea.
Global Industry Analysts valued the skin-lightening industry as being worth $10 billion in 2015.
"We're already clear about the dangers of these products, but then the question becomes which bodies matter?" Blay asked.
Don't women of color have a "choice" to lighten their skin? It's not that simple.
Given the social and economic pressures women of color face around the world and the dangers skin bleaching poses to their physical well-being, what does this mean for women of color like Lil' Kim, who want to be whomever they want to be?
Is this simply a matter of individual expression? For both Hunter and Blay, the answer is complicated.
"I wouldn't want to say black women cannot have blonde hair, black women cannot have straight hair or long hair, or straight noses," Hunter told Vox. "I feel like we would wish for black women what we wish for everyone, and that is artistic freedom in creating their own looks and their own styles."
Nonetheless, for Blay, wanting black women to have the same freedom as their peers doesn't mean they have that freedom within their grasp.
"Not only is it a hard question, but it is a dangerous question because I think that's something that we have to think through," Blay said. "It feels like people of color don't have — within a racist society, within a white-supremacist society, within a society that was founded literally upon their backs — the "freedom" to be whoever we want to be."
Ultimately, whatever Lil' Kim's motivations for her transformation, her social media post reflects the harmful ways race plays into beauty politics, and the price many women are paying as a result.