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Skin Lightening: Africa’s Multibillion Dollar Post-Colonial Hangover (Bright)

Bright title: Skin Lightening: Africa’s Multibillion Dollar Post-Colonial Hangover

Bright subtitle: “One thing we cannot deny is that skin lightening has impacted Africans’ individual and collective beauty standards; lighter skin is often perceived as a marker of superior beauty and economic status.”

Date of publishing: 7 May 2019

“Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, my mother’s hair salon housed many vivid memories. I recall how my eyes would tear up from the sting of menthol as I greased scalps. I remember my arms cramping from prepping hair extensions, or worse, undoing micro braids. (This was the 1990s. These days, we are more into Peruvian weaves, wigs, and crochet braids.)

I also remember eavesdropping on women swapping recommendations for skin lightening products. Some women gave directions to beauticians who were known for mixing special creams. Others would exchange homemade concoctions, like how combining certain products with moisturizer could mitigate the harshness of the chemicals, or how a certain egg-based shampoo made for effective lightening results. Sometimes code words like skin toning, brightening, or glowing would be used in place of the pejorative “bleaching.”

Thinking back, the question “what are you using?” was a common refrain in my youth.

Personally, I didn’t feel like I needed to be lighter, but I certainly didn’t want to get darker. Like so many Nigerian girls and women, I found myself avoiding the sun as much as I could, a habit that continued into my early adulthood. My older sister is very light skinned, and growing up, it was palpable how both men and women fawned over her. Somewhere in the depths of my subconscious, I too had equated lighter skin tone with beauty.

As I entered my early 20s, I began to interrogate beauty standards and those ideals started to lose their power. But still, despite all the work I’ve done to accept my natural color, when I walk into a salon to get my eyebrows waxed, someone inevitably recommends a product to, as they put it, “heighten my glow.”

Today, the global skin lightening industry is estimated to be in the multibillion dollar range. In Africa, Nigeria is the largest consumer of skin lightening products. While there is no substantial data on the use of skin lightening products around the world, a World Health Organization report claims that 77 percent of Nigerian women use them on a regular basis. Countries like Togo, South Africa, and Senegal are not lagging too far behind.

Skin lightening, however, is not limited to Africa. In 2017, according to Future Market Insights, Asia-Pacific made up more than half of the global market for skin lightening products, with China accounting for about 40 percent of sales, Japan 21 percent, and Korea 18 percent.

In Africa, there is no documented history of when skin lightening took off, but Yaba Blay, who teaches black body politics and gender politics at North Carolina Central University, believes that it began as African countries gained their independence.

In a 2018 interview with the online publication Byrdie, Blay says that white women have historically used their whiteness as a way to communicate purity. This belief was exported to Africa, and around the time of independence, skin lightening began “exploding.”

“These European countries [were] flooding their colonial places with their products and using whiteness as a way to sell the products,” she says. “People were attempting to gain some level of power and privilege that’s associated with whiteness.”

These attitudes have continued to this day. Make-up artist Teni Coco, in an Instagram post, spoke of her experience using lightening creams. “By the time I was 20, I had become a heavy skin bleacher,” she wrote. “At the time it felt almost normal, I felt like I looked more attractive. I craved so much to be lighter. I felt being black wasn’t beautiful enough. I guess the society we live in played a little role in my decision to bleach my skin.”

After some soul searching, Coco gave up bleaching her skin at 25. “How crazy it was for me to have believed that my black skin wasn’t beautiful, to have allowed myself to feel inadequate,” she reflected.

With attitudes as deeply ingrained as this, what would it take to get Nigerian women — and women across the continent — to stop bleaching their skin?

The debate around skin bleaching has recently resurfaced. Cameroonian singer Dencia launched a skincare line called Whitenicious in 2014 to much controversy. In 2018, the American reality television star Blac Chyna launched a skin lightening product under a brand called “Diamond Illuminating & Lightening Cream” here in Lagos, priced at $250 a jar. There was also the infamous Nivea advertising campaign, “White is Purity.” All of these campaigns elicited heavy social media criticism and think pieces that attributed the desire for lighter skin to self-hate for brown skin.

Feminist and publisher Bibi Bakare-Yusuf has done extensive research on skin bleaching among Nigerian women. She believes it is too reductive to blame this “post-colonial phenomena” simply on white supremacy. “In the context of Nigeria, at least when I started working on the research,” she says, “people were very disdainful of white skin.”

How crazy it was for me to have believed that my black skin wasn’t beautiful, to have allowed myself to feel inadequate.

If there is a connection to low self-esteem or desire for whiteness, Bakare-Yusuf believes it happens on a subconscious level. “I think that when we constantly ascribe every single action that we [take] to desire for whiteness,” she says, “we are unnecessarily over-valorizing whiteness. People are not always conscious of what they do.” Bakare-Yusuf likens skin lightening to any kind of cosmetic procedure and believes that humans are always searching for “perfection” by tampering with their natural appearance.

From my childhood to date, television images and billboards have always been emblazoned with light-skinned faces and much of the media and popular culture are often complicit in the perpetuation of these ideals. Film and commercials director Tolu Ajayi says that in advertising, light skin is often viewed as an “aspirational look.”

“The aspirational look is people that look ‘upmarket,’” he says. “Looking upmarket, being of a [high] socio-economic class is associated with being light-skinned.” The implication is that if you are dark skinned, you spend much of your time working outdoors under the sun, which is associated with economic struggle. This is one possible reason for the disdainful gasps I received from the hair salon clients when I would home from boarding school with a tan due to spending long hours in the sun from cutting grass and other chores.

Ajayi explains that fashion photographers have very little power to change the status quo because clients usually insist on using lighter-skinned women to market their products. And the images created by the advertising industry in Nigeria often do not represent the audience they are trying to communicate with. “There hasn’t been any real change. I think light-skinned people are still preferred,” he says. “There is an idea that they photograph better. Sometimes people believe clothes pop better on lighter skin.” This thinking even extends to children’s products, with mostly light-skinned babies dominating diaper adverts.

Television host and actress Folu Ogunkeye has experienced her share of rejection when auditioning for film and television roles as a dark-skinned woman. “What I have found in Nigeria is that leading roles are not readily available for dark-skinned actresses,” she explains. “Initially I had simply assumed that I wasn’t suited for the particular role for which I had auditioned, but then each time, the role was given to a lighter-skinned contemporary. After discussions behind the scenes with industry experts, it has been said outright that certain leading roles are simply not given to darker-skinned actresses because executives do not believe that audiences [want to] see darker women in romantic or leading lady roles.”

One of the seemingly oxymoronic aspects of skin lightening in Nigeria is the sense of shame and denial attached to using these products, particularly among elite women.

The aspirational look is people that look ‘upmarket’. Looking upmarket, being of a [high] socio-economic class is associated with being light-skinned.

Bakare-Yusuf says that during her research, she found that many of them did not want to admit to lightening their skin because the act is often associated with those who are uneducated. Working-class women, meanwhile, “are not even trying to hide that they are bleaching.”

Many professional Nigerians also closely follow the discourse around white supremacy, and don’t want to be seen to have capitulated to its power. As a result, some opt for more discreet skin lightening products in the form of pills, chemical peels, and intravenous treatments offered by expensive dermatologists and high-end beauty spas.

One thing we cannot deny is that skin lightening has impacted Africans’ individual and collective beauty standards; lighter skin is often perceived as a marker of superior beauty and economic status.

Pragmatism and aesthetics aside, the dangers of skin lightening can be serious, ranging from chemical burns to skin cancer to kidney damage. I recall an aunt whom we as children cruelly nicknamed “crocodile skin” because of the scales that had formed around her face and neck. There were stories of people whose wounds would not heal after an injury due to the skin’s thinness from harsh chemicals. One season at my boarding school, a teenage girl fell asleep with a potent soap smeared across her face, only to wake up to burns and blisters. These stories highlight the desperate measures many women are willing to take to attain their ideal of beautiful skin.

A few African countries, like Kenyaand Ghana, have attempted a crackdown on the importation and sale of certain skin lightening products, especially those containing chemicals like hydroquinone and mercury. More recently, Rwandaenforced a nationwide ban on skin bleaching products, leading to authorities removing creams and soaps from shelves across the country.

While the sentiment behind the bans are noble, most of them aren’t enforced effectively. In 2017, Ghana introduced a ban on the importation and sale of products containing the lightening agent hydroquinone. “But they are not going around Accra walking into shops, picking them off the shelves,” says Nana Agyemang-Asante, a Ghanaian journalist. “I know a shop where I buy my lotions from and I still see these products. Like everything else in my country, on paper, there is a ban but people who know where to get it, will get it.”

Ineffective bans could also create an underground market with unregulated products that could be far more dangerous. Nigerian doctor Ola Brown arguesthat banning skin lightening products do not work as long as lighter skin is still associated with beauty and success.

For me personally, banning these bleaching products may not stop their use completely — but it will hopefully inspire conversations that not only inform people about the dangers of skin lightening but that also encourage people to talk about the psychological toll of colorism.

Luckily, young people on the continent are starting those much needed conversations. Social media-savvy youth are using the internet to push back against a singular standard of beauty and in the process forcing brands and image creators to re-examine the “aspirational look.”

Nollywood actress Beverly Naya created the “50 Shades of Black” campaign, to expand the visibility of other skin tones represented in mainstream media. The campaign scored a corporate partnership with the haircare brand Dark & Lovely, helping her message reach more people than she could ever have imagined, which has led her to become the face of Nivea’s current campaign. More recently, Naya made a documentary called “Skin” which through interviews with many Nigerian women addresses, the deep-rooted issues around colorism. She says the “goal of the documentary is to empower people and to encourage them to love themselves as they are.”

Colorism is a complex and loaded notion that requires re-examining our cultural norms of beauty. This sort of long-term educational approach will take a lot of time and effort. But I think there is hope.

Just in the same way that the natural hair movement caused a decline in the sale of chemical hair relaxers, forcing beauty companies to create products for natural hair, or how black YouTubers forced the makeup industry to rethink its products and marketing, the same can happen to the skin lightening industry.

With education and awareness campaigns and a deliberate move to broaden the spectrum of the skin tones that we see on our television screens and billboards, the needle on colorism will eventually shift. However, while we wait for that change to happen, we need strict regulations to ensure the safety of skin products being sold in stores across the continent.

Now in my 30s, I am surprisingly asked about my skin regimen despite sporting a heavy tan from taking on swimming as a new hobby. I think this is because Nigerian’s perception of what it considered beautiful skin is becoming more expansive, and there is an increased awareness that beauty isn’t monolithic.

Recent shifts in how we see beauty such as the body positivity and natural hair movements as well as dark-skinned, Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o becomingambassador for French luxury cosmetics house Lancôme, are contributing to our gradual redefining of beauty. My hope is that one day in the near future, no woman in Nigeria will feel she has to lighten her skin to feel beautiful or improve her odds of success in life.”



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