Lil' Kim Instagram Photos Fuel Debate on Society’s Ideal Beauty Standard and Pressure for Women of Color to Conform

Lil' Kim's new look, lighter skin and blonde hair, making waves in beauty scene.

May 06, 2016, 5:18 PM

— -- Lil' Kim, the self-proclaimed "Queen Bee" of rap, has been turning heads since she stepped onto the music scene.

With her colorful wigs, explicit lyrics and eye popping music videos, the rap star's vibrant personality and physical appearance largely define her persona.

And the rapper is once again making waves with a series of photos she recently posted on Instagram to show off a new look.

In the posts, many are saying Lil' Kim appears virtually unrecognizable compared to what she looked like in photos from the 1990s. Along with her wavy blonde hair, they are commenting that her facial structure seems visibly different, and that her nose looks thinner and her skin lighter.

The post sparked an online firestorm, with some speculating whether the image was all due to make up and camera filters, while others are convinced that she chemically lightened her skin tone.

Lil' Kim has not yet commented on the issue and has not responded to requests for comment on whether she radically changed her appearance from ABC News' "Nightline."

However, her photos have sparked a discussion about society's view of ideal beauty and whether women of color are under pressure to conform.

According to Minnesota photographer Patience Zalanga, Lil' Kim's new look aligns with what she calls "the Hollywood standard of beauty" which is, as she explains, "lighter skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, slender."

"As a little girl, I was also one of the black kids that wanted to have lighter skin, so the transformation of Lil' Kim is really just -- it's extreme. But it's not a phenomenon," Zalanga said.

In fact, Lil' Kim herself admitted to insecurities about her looks in an interview with Newsweek from 2000, saying, "I have low self-esteem. I always have. Guys have always cheated on me with women who were European looking ... really beautiful women that left me thinking, 'How can I compete with that?' Being a regular black girl wasn't good enough."

Critics say the beauty industry is capitalizing on the idea that some young women of color are unhappy in their own skin, thus fueling a multi-million dollar skin bleaching business in the U.S.

"Black women and women of color are always aspiring to get as close to white as possible to fit within those beauty standards," Zalanga said.

Beauty vlogger Jasmine Rose told "Nightline" that she experimented with bleaching her skin in high school due to acne scaring.

Rose said she would "bleach the spots and then I was like, 'Well if I bleach the spots, what happens if I bleach my face?' I got compliments from folks saying, 'Oh your skin looks brighter,' and that was kind of motivation for me to continue doing it."

She added that she stopped using the creams after she got to college and now loves her natural complexion.

Zalanga said she also tried bleaching her skin. "I did maybe in sixth grade. And it was like really terrible because every time you put it on you recognized that you don't like something of yourself which is my skin color," she said. "And so it was really heartbreaking but also just damaging to my self-esteem because I wanted to be something that I was not."

Over-the-counter skin-bleaching products are intended for small areas to treat minor discolorations, and dermatologists warn that using them more broadly can thin the skin and become dangerous.

Dr. Mohiba Tareen says the over-the-counter products used for skin lightening "can contain toxic chemicals that can be really harmful and cause skin cancer and even internal cancers."

Tareen said she has fielded many requests from patients wanting full body depigmentation. In those instances, she said that she refers patients to psychologist to discuss underlying reasons for their requests.

The appeal of skin bleaching products is not just in the U.S., Tareen said.

"It's inundated in Indian society that ... all these things can be done at a young age to lighten the skin tone," Tareen said.

In fact, the World Health Organization reported in 2011 that 77 percent of women in Nigeria used skin-lightening products regularly, as did 40 percent of women in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Korea.

This worldwide complexion complex has led many to sympathize with Lil' Kim.

"What's more important is to address the bigger issue and that's how white supremacy is still pervasive," Zalanga said.

Though more darker-complexioned women are surfacing as icons of beauty in Hollywood, light-skinned women continue to dominate on red carpets and magazine covers. And some magazines have received accusations of digitally lightening skin tones on celebrities with darker complexions, like Lupita Nyong'o, Gabourey Sidibe and Kerry Washington.

Often, the quest to achieve beauty ideals goes far beyond changing skin complexion. Altering physical appearance by means of plastic surgery to achieve beauty ideals is something Kendra Elia is all too familiar with.

Elia has sought out the perfect face for years, undergoing four rhinoplasties. "If the makeup's not changing and not helping, maybe it's my nose ... I'm willing to change what I don't think looks good," Elia told "Nightline" in a 2014 interview.

Worried that with each procedure her daughter was erasing her ethnicity, Elia's mother Sylvia Barnett told "Nightline," "I'm proud of my blackness, always been that way and I don't want to change a thing ... I always thought [Elia] was pretty … She was fine the way she was."

At the time of her fourth procedure on her nose, Elia said she hoped it would be her last. But more than a year later, Elia said she is merely content with her nose.

"I'm more satisfied than I was with the previous surgeries," Elia said. "I'm not 100 percent satisfied, but I'm more so along the lines of 85 to 90 percent."

She said if she had the money, she'd have even more work done, but she still insists it's not about losing her ethnicity.

While the speculation on whether or not Lil' Kim changed her appearance will continue, some hope the conversation on beauty does as well.

"If you still don't get why Lil' Kim having lighter skin, blond hair and blue eyes is a big deal ... then you are maybe part of the default. And I think that's an important thing to raise," said Zalanga.

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