We met facialist and skincare consultant Dija Ayodele at a talk we both did at Selfridges and asked if she would like to contribute. “I have some ideas’” she said, and a few weeks later she sent us this well-researched piece all about the widespread culture of skin bleaching.
Recently, Kenyan ‘socialite’ Vera Sidika has been making waves because of her open admission of skin-lightening on a popular Kenyan TV show, #theTrend.
Sidika said her decision to lighten her skin was economically-motivated, claiming she has received more work offers with her markedly lighter skin tone. After the show’s airing, #theTrend’s host, Larry Madowo, was “accused of promoting or endorsing a white-centred view of beauty for African girls by interviewing her”. Consequently, NTV – the station behind the show ran a follow-up programme to “discuss skin lightening” and “encouraged people to share their thoughts using #BleachedBeauty”; and, as of last month, there have been over 4000 responses, most of them intensely critical of Sidika’s decision to go lighter.
But, though viewers’ reception of Sidika’s story was hostile, #BleachedBeauty revealed that the socialite and self-described “video-vixen[’s]” tale is not an isolated one; many girls, like Sidika, are lightening their skin in the hope of securing a partner, better jobs, and social acceptance.
It is a sad state of affairs when skin tone becomes the defining feature of one’s position in life.
Speaking to an unmarried, female cousin in Sierra Leone who uses skin-lightening products, she told me that “being overweight and very dark skinned is a double curse for her. How will she ever find a husband? It’s much better to be the fat light skinned girl than the fat black one. At least men will say I’m fat but my skin is pretty and yellow.”
Sidika and my cousin’s admissions spotlight the ever-rising debate on the issue of skin-lightening, skin-bleaching or what some refer to as skin-toning. Regardless of whichever term is used, the process refers to someone using topical creams or injected chemical cocktails to change the shade of their skin, making themselves lighter than they genetically are.
An affluent friend told me she used skin-lightening creams because she wanted to look “fresh and glowing.” For her, it wasn’t about going a lighter colour; it was more about achieving an even skin tone. But, she did go lighter. She told me of using an unknown mixture she bought from another friend who bought them in Lagos; all her friends were using it, so she thought why not – even though she had no clear idea of what the cream was made up of.
Dr Terry Loong, Medical Director of the Mayfair based Skin Energy Clinic says that this is a particular problem when people buy skin-lightening products on the black market – they have no idea what’s in it. “You could be putting on poison and you just don’t know.” Some lightening products contain mercury, phenols, steroids, hydroquinone and retinol in any mix – ingredients that cannot be legally bought over the counter in the UK, and some of which need application under strict doctor supervision.
Last month, I got the opportunity to speak to a group of beautifully dark, well-to-do Nigerian women and they told me about friends and family who lighten their skin.
Previously, I had thought it was only poorer women in society who engaged in skin-lightening, but my conversation with these women told me otherwise. They spoke of educated, intelligent and well-travelled women who lightened their skin; it appears the practice cuts across the social strata. It’s just that richer women can afford better creams that don’t result in the tell-tale black knuckles, fishy odour and patchy, reddened skin.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) claims that Nigeria is the skin-lightening hothouse of the world. A whopping 77% of women have used a skin-lightening product, closely followed by Togo at 59%. This claim is supported by NOI Polls who released findings in March that show 64% of Nigerians believe skin lightening has become highly predominant amongst Nigerians nationwide.
But, skin-lightening is not only a big issue in Nigeria or other African nations: in India, skin-lightening is infamously popular – a lot of it having to do with the caste structure and some cultural aspects that perpetuate the idea that fair skin is ideal.
In 2010, a report by AC Neilson showed the lightening cream market in India was worth $432 million and forecast to grow by 18% each year. This is supported by data from the World Health Organisation, which reveals 61% of the dermatological markets consist of skin-lightening products. Celebrities are the usually recruited as the promoters for whitening brands, and in Bollywood films a lot of the leading ladies are lighter, with darker skin actresses playing the “horrible sister/step mother” roles.
A Thai subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever, was recently forced to apologise over a university competition which suggested that scholarships would be offered to lighter skinned entrants.
The competition wanted students to send in pictures of themselves alongside Citra Pearly White UV body lotion.
The advert broadcast on TV showed a dark female student alongside a lighter-skinned fellow student. The former was seemed unable to answer the presenter’s questions whereas the latter sailed through and described as beautiful – another subtle hint that the darker the skin tone, the less intelligent the bearer.
In places like Japan and Korea, some women always have an umbrella with them to not only shade them from rain and harmful UV rays, but also to prevent darkening of the skin.
In a 2012 Huffington Post feature, skincare entrepreneur Suki Kramer said, “Lightening creams in Japan are marketed completely differently as Asian women are looking for milky, snow white skin tone – it’s what’s considered elegant and fashionable. Bleaching the skin is not only trendy, but a normal part of their skin care regimens.”
Another point to consider is the cost of skin lightening. Skin-lightening under medical supervision can cost upwards of £2000. This high cost fuels the black market of skin-lightening products and pushes those wanting lightening for aesthetic reasons to seek cheaper products from cowboy suppliers on the black market. Yinka and Michael Oluyemi, who ran Yinka Bodyline and Beauty Express in Peckham, were handed suspended prison sentences and a fine of £70,000 in 2007 after admitting ten charges of flouting medical and safety rules by selling banned skin lightening products – even after receiving numerous official warnings to remove the products from their shelves. A year earlier, Brixton-based Ace Afro Hair and Beauty was fined £50,000 for selling toxic skin bleaching products.
With all this in mind, I find it very interesting that people who use bleaching creams don’t think that’s what they are doing. In the course of my research, so many people said they were just “toning” their skin. I even got chastised on Facebook for using the word ‘bleach’ – they claimed they were merely trying to achieve an even skin tone. I believe this is because people think that so long as the product does not contain hydroquinone (a banned substance in the UK) then they are fine. They forget that there are other chemical cocktails that can cause just as much damage to the skin.
In my opinion, ‘beauty’ in some communities has been associated with fair and honey-hued skin for too long, so many have fallen into the trap of believing it.
Even Oscar award-winning actress, Lupita Nyong’O, publicly stated she grew up hating her skin tone and wanted it to be lighter; she would pray to God at night to wake up a few shades lighter.
It wasn’t until Oprah Winfrey called brilliantly-dark Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek “beautiful”, Nyong’o says, that she was able to start accepting her own beauty. “That made it a fact,” she proclaimed earlier this year at Essence’s annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon. Watch Lupita & Alek talk here
Some cite the argument that during slavery, lighter-skinned slaves worked in the house and were treated better, comparatively, than the darker-skinned slaves who worked outside on the fields. Perhaps this is why people are trying to lighten their skin – but slavery ended over 100 years ago- do we use this today as a means of understanding the phenomena? It seems that for some women – and, frankly, whole communities – their collective psyche is still very much in bondage to the idea that white is superior.
Earlier this year, Nigerian-Cameroonian musician Dencia defended her cream, ‘Whitenicious‘, as a toner and dark-spot remover rather than an all-over lightening cream though she is noticeably lighter than she was in the past. Even the name casts a shadow over the intentions of the product: in her words “white means pure and clean“. Dencia has flatly refused to accept that Whitenicious, or the ethos behind it, preys on already fragile minds or promotes a self-deprecating cycle in some women.
I have found websites where whole forums are dedicated to this one topic.
People search and compare the best creams, lotions and gels, get DIY tips on mixing their own lightening agents and exchange results. I have seen people actively state that they would like to go two or three shades lighter, so they can look good for a wedding or get more work. To me, websites and forums like these are pits of pressure and insecurity sucking away at the diverse beauty of women.
“Some women are eluded to think that lighter skin gets them things. They think skin colour is a factor and their self-image is low when they have dark skin. That affects all performance in their life” Dr Loong.
Not only can lightening cheapen you and eat away at your self worth, it is also very dangerous to your health. Skin lightening increases propensity to skin cancer, burns, boils, ruptured blood vessels, kidney damage, nephrotic syndrome, premature ageing, excessive stretch marks, and skin thinning and tearing.
Aside from the physical health complications that can arise from skin lightening, the psychological effects can be just as damaging. During the skin lightening process, the production and distribution of melanin in the skin is not only reduced but also inhibited. In addition, the chemical agents used increase the breakdown of melanin in the skin and this happens over several phases, leaving the skin sore, sensitized and at risk of severe sun damage. It is not uncommon for people to go too far, too quickly, with skin lightening, leaving their skin irrevocably damaged; consequently, they can end up living in constant regret of their actions, resorting to wearing heavy camouflage make-up to hide the results of a botched bleach job or sometimes even too upset to leave the house. They can also suffer from anxiety, depression and psychosis.
One of the side effects of skin lightening is Ochronosis, a condition where the skin over compensates the effects of bleaching by producing even more melanin, which is almost impossible to get rid of. Facialist and Skin Expert, Antonia Burrell, has seen a few clients in her time that “ended up feeling worse about their skin after [skin lightening] because of the damage and the pink appearance.”
So I ask myself, why do these women think lighter is best? The only answers I can come up with are: lack of self-esteem, lack of belief in their own abilities to achieve greatness without compromise of self by pandering to ideals set by unknown gatekeepers of beauty. That is why lightening cuts across all social classes, indiscriminately. But, with myriad successful, dark-skinned women all around us, skin colour, tone or shade needn’t play such a defining part in attaining success. Even if, like Sidika, your body is your moneymaker, skintone need not be the bargaining chip.
MP Diane Abbot; First Lady Michelle Obama; journalist Femi Oke; former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; singer Shingai Shoniwa; Olympian Christine Ohuruogo; tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams; Sky News presenter Gillian Joseph, and the Queen’s chaplain Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin.
These are women who have risen to the top without a whiff of bleach, focusing on using their talents and intelligence to achieve their dreams. They are positive role models and, prominent black women, who show success is achieved through hard graft, not skintone. They show whether you are light or dark-skinned, you are beautiful just as you are; they own their beauty – and, perhaps we all should too.