Since the end of Apartheid in 1992, South Africa has billed itself as the “Rainbow Nation” – one where all skin tones are celebrated and cherished. Yet something is amiss. Over the last five years, more and more South Africans have been using creams, injections and over-the-counter remedies to lighten their skin – by some estimates, up to 35% of South African women now use skin lighteners in an effort to achieve the light-brown skin tone shared by many black celebrities, including Rihanna, Beyonce and others – women known colloquially as “Yellowbones.” This trend has gone unexplained, and is deeply troubling: in addition to the psychological damage they cause and the racist beauty standards they perpetuate, skin bleaching products can cause skin cancer, third-degree burns and exogenous ochronosis (death of the skin).
What is behind this recent surge? To find out, Yellowbone will trace the history of race in South Africa, framing its current sociological landscape in the context of its past, and examine the phenomenon of colourism across the planet. Starting in Cape Town, ‘the mother city’, and the most visually stark display of racial disparity on the African continent, Yellowbone will retrace the products’ journey to the Congo, where they are mass-produced in factories. Finally, it will examine the trend of skin lightening products in the United States, where they were first developed, and where they are still used. The film will explore the following question: in a world that spends 19.7 billion dollars on skin lightening products annually, what can be done at both local and global levels? And how does South Africa’s story shed light on the issue worldwide?