Many decades has passed since Africans went through slavery and colonialism, a time when their resources were exploited and their minds and mentality raped and replaced with what Fela dubbed “kolomentality”. With skin rich in melanin, bronzed in elegance, dark as ebony, most Africans are still not contented especially women. It may be alright to wear wigs and weave, it may seem bright to wear make up for a change but what’s not alright is changing your skin to fit in. Bleaching craze in Africa has reached such an alarming rate that if nothing is done, many deaths will soon be credited to skin cancer and kidney failure.
According to LLC online dictionary, to bleach means to make whiter or lighter in colour, as by exposure to sunlight or a chemical agent; it also means to remove colour from something. Skin bleaching therefore means to remove colour (in this case) melanin from the skin so as to achieve a lighter complexion. The general aim of skin bleaching is to achieve a paler complexion.
Disturbing discoveries have not reduced the sales of skin lightening products. In fact, global skin lightening industry was projected to be worth $10 billion USD by 2015. The products cost anywhere between 50 cents and $150 making it affordable by everybody… The world health organization in its report stated that Nigerians are the highest users of such products: 77% of Nigerian women use the products on a regular basis. They are followed by Togo with 59%; South Africa with 35%; and Mali at 25%. Countries like Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Gambia and Tanzania are not left
Malcolm X once asked, “Who taught you to hate yourself? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin?”
A popular saying that “if it’s white, it’s alright” may have been misconstrued. Self-hatred may seem too harsh a word to use in this context but it’s definitely not self-love to disrespect and destroy ones skin. Most Africans with dark skin all over the world suffer from complex arising from the colour of their skin. The origin of the mindset that white is beautiful, virtuous and noble may have originated from the colonial days. While the colonial masters may have packed their bags, their legacy remains. One of which is the belief that been black means primitive, backward and ugly.
If it’s White, It’s Alright
Most Africans grew up to believe that lighter skinned people are more beautiful, more favored and wanted than black, hence the craze to bleach. For instance, local South African musician Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi, now several shades lighter, says her new skin makes her feel more beautiful and confident. She proudly stated that she started undergoing skin-lightening and plastic surgery because she was “tired of being ugly”
A recent study by the University of Cape Town suggests that one woman in three in South Africa bleaches her skin. The reasons for this varies but most people say they use skin-lighteners because they want “white skin”.
Being Too Black
In 1930, a French ad for Dirtoff showed a dark African man washing his hands, with the soap washing away his blackness. Such ads were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Blackness had become a pathological condition – there was something fundamentally wrong with you if you were black.
Recently, a Thai beauty brand came under fire after it rolled out a commercial that argued having white skin is essential for achieving success in life.
It may be easy to understand why colonial masters may call Africans names and jeer at them for being too black. However its hard to understand when the ridicule comes from within. A good look at the Nigerian film industry (Nollywood) places light skinned people at an advantage. This creates a psychobiological warfare that black is beautiful but been too black isn’t. Tanzania has one of the highest bleaching women population. According to one Tanzanian study, women claimed Tanzanian men preferred white, soft-skinned girls. Thus, skin-lightening is very important in attracting men. Even after attracting these men and marrying them, bleaching continues so as to keep them at home. This is a rather sad one for Tanzania women as whiteness has become a measure of beauty.
Another disturbing thing is the fact that celebrities as well as stars are encouraging the trend. For instance, it is a common occurrence in the Nigerian entertainment industry that when a celebrity hits a benchmark in his/her career, the skin also witnesses a drastic change in colour. Lighter skin is often associated with affluence, prestige and class. Fela’s condemnation of this practice in Yellow Fever (1976) have not done much good. The Ghanaian film industry is sadly not left out. An avid example is Dencia, Nigerian and Cameroonian pop star who changed her skin colour and currently owns a whitening cream line.
While blacks are rarely featured on international magazines like Elle and Vogue, the few that are featured are over photoshopped to increase the lightness of their skin. This has a psychic impact on the readers. Although Afro Americans like Beyoncé have made it to the list of most beautiful women in the world, no pure black AFRICAN has made it to the same list. The colonial legacy here preaches “it’s ok to be black but not too black”. This is in a bid to avoid been termed racist. Many argue that BET Network which is supposed to celebrate Black now celebrate several shades lighter than the average black person. All this adds to the anxiety and pressure on most Africans to lighten their skin and fit in socially.
“We ain’t so black and proud afterall!”
In 2007, the Jamaican government had to run a campaign called ‘Don’t Kill The Skin’ to highlight the dangers of using skin-lightening products because the practice was becoming increasingly common, so common that some people started holding bleaching contests.
Brazilian carnival beauty queen was dethroned and backlashed on social media for been too black after which she was replaced with a light skinned woman. While most women bleach to please men, some men have contrary views. Mr. Kiyonga, a Ugandan University lecturer is totally against bleaching:
“Come to Uganda, every girl wants to look beautiful with their light faces and black skin, the truth is why not leave yourself as God created you, these women smell a lot and I don’t find it attractive, I prefer natural fair or black skin not bleached, thank you,”
Health Implications The Labels Dont Tell
In Ivory Coast, “tchatchos,” an untranslatable Ivory Coast term is used to describe people who bleach their skin. The creams/products don’t work on feet, knuckles and elbows, making it easy to spot tchatchos. The treatments also dry out the skin, giving some users a tough, leathery-like complexion and posing other health risks.
Expectant mothers who have used skin-bleaching often encounter trouble breastfeeding because of dried milk ducts. Users sometimes also suffer from migraines, high blood pressure and skin cancer. Minister of Health and the Fight Against AID, Raymond Goudou Coffie said in a statement when skin lightening products were banned that:
“This declaration to regulate cosmetics and personal care products is to protect Ivorians from depigmentation, one of the major causes of destruction of their health,”
Though no official numbers are available on the number of Ivorian “tchatchos,” skin-bleaching is prevalent throughout West Africa and around the world.
Paul Orhii, the director general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Nigeria has stated that bleaching creams are not approved but one way or the other, they are smuggled into the country: “The use of Glutathione as a skin whitener is not approved. The alarming increase in the unapproved use of Glutathione administered intravenously as a skin-whitening agent at very high doses is unsafe and may result in serious consequences. “Furthermore, other chemicals that have been medically proven to be injurious to health such as Hydroquinone above 2%, and topical Corticosteroids have also been incorporated into cosmetic products for skin lightening or skin toning.
Pela Okiemute, a professional skincare agent, however contradicted the above claim by stating in an interview with Encomium that some other whitening agents, apart from the aforementioned, do not kill: “Gluthatione kills and reduces cancer. It kills kidney problem, lungs problem. “It reduces high blood pressure. It’s anti-aging, clears spots and pimples from your face and body. It is more of a healthy medication with its side effect as whitening. “The negative impact of bleaching is when you use bad products”.
Other side effects are dark knuckles, elbows and knees, uneven skin tone, sun burn , redness and itching, unpleasant smell as well all forms of skin irritations and reactions.
What Happened To Black Don’t Crack
Stars like lupita N’yongo & Genevieve Nnaji are a few example of people who have decided to be pace setters by celebrating black. Lupita has however been backlashed in 2014 by skin bleaching singer, Dencia for signing a contract with Lacomé, a skin whitening cream industry. However, her inclusion into the company may be a bid to include people of colour in the product line. It has not been reported that lupita has attempted toning her skin. Also, Alek Wek (South Sudan/UK), Ajuma Nasenyana (Kenya), Naomi Campbell (UK) and Eunice Olumide (Nigeria) are among the tiny handful of high-profile dark-skinned models on the international stage, but as Eunice says, “… it is still rare to see a very dark-skinned model on the cover of a magazine. I’d love that to change.”
Bleaching craze in Africa can only be addressed from childhood. Parents should educate their children on how to value and love themselves. They should be taught that men are never defined by their skin colour or the nature of their creed.