Skin Lighteners and the African Illusion

dencia

Nigerian and Cameroonian singer Dencia

by Allan Kastiro

“White means pure. Not necessarily skin but in general, that’s how I look at it, it means pure.” This is a statement made by Nigerian and Cameroonian singer Dencia, who created a controversial skin-bleaching cream called ‘Whitenicious’. In a Television interview with the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 News in March 2014, the singer responded to the criticism that her skin lightening product had received. Dencia claimed that her product was not a skin lightener but a dark spot remover however; many of the Whitenicious’ campaign ads presented Dencia’s skin tone as being lighter than her original color and this created a contradiction with her claims.

Lupita-Nyong’o

Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o

Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o, who has on numerous occasions discussed the issue of standards of beauty and why girls should not find the need to use skin lighteners, also addressed the issue of products like Whitenicious in her acceptance speech at the ESSENCE awards. In the speech, Lupita Nyong’o talks about how she has been able to inspire and empower dark skinned girls around the world by showing them that black is indeed beautiful. She talks about one particular girl who wrote to her to thank her for inspiring her to love her natural skin tone otherwise she would have resorted to using Whitenicious since society and western standards of beauty make it seem as though anything less than light is not beautiful.

I think that the biggest problem in Africa today is the illusion that lighter is better. This illusion is rooted in colonialism, western-dominated capitalist culture and western standards of beauty. Many African people believe that they need to have a lighter skin tone in order to improve themselves and their status in society. That is, most African people desire lighter skin because they believe that this will change people’s outlook on them and they will be able to attain their desired jobs, get spouses or elevate to another class in the society. These beliefs stem from the fact that whiteness is viewed as being symbolic capital whereby being white or having a light skin tone is equated to competence, respectability and honorability. African people have unconsciously been taught by the west to dislike their dark skin and instead strive to achieve a lighter skin tone because they believe that it is much more accepted and desired.

Mnisi

South African musician Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Mnisi

A number of people who use skin lightening products argue that desiring a lighter skin has nothing to do with self-hate or wanting to be white but is as a result of insecurities and low self-esteem. An example is that of South African musician Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Mnisi who changed her skin complexion and is now lighter than she was originally. To her, skin-bleaching is a personal choice and is no different from breast implants or a having nose job. Mnisi says that the main reason she bleached her skin was to see what it would be like to be white as she had been dark for a long time. (Pumza Fihlani, 2013) Although Mnisi says that she is not self-hating and does not aim to be white, her attitude towards her natural skin tone says otherwise. It also leads me to question why she would feel less confident or have a low self-esteem if she was indeed proud to be black as she so often claims.

In conclusion, I believe that Whiteness or in this case, lightness as a symbolic capital has created a generation of African people who lack self-worth and confidence in their natural skin tone and this has resulted into the use of skin lightening products which in the long run damage their skins and might ultimately lead to severe diseases like cancer. I think that this trend will not end unless the people who use these products change their views on what they perceive as the standard of beauty and develop a sense of self-worth as dark-skinned African people.

Reference

Fihlani P. 2013. Africa: Where black is not really beautiful. Retrieved on 13th 2014 from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-20444798

Limited by White

by Ellen Brookes

In a world where the standards of beauty are held explicitly by people of fairer complexion, a damsel, with her ebony hues, would be seen as substandard, under par, or, to put it simply, ugly. Therefore, in order to assimilate into an ideal beauty, she must find a herbal concoction that will lighten her features and allow her to fulfill her destiny.

This sounds like it should be the beginning of a sort of adventure-type fairytale; and yet, this is not the case.
This is the reality faced by many young people around the world today.

This is the reality that many young women feel they have to conform to in order to be successful.

Sure, there are young men who may feel the same, and older women too, but it’s the youth who are having their potential and their self-esteems curbed. Not only is it colorist, but it is gender-based. Women are more likely be targeted by advertising agencies for these reasons; women are more likely to be scrutinized for their looks; women are more likely for their success to be judged on the color of their skin, rather than their individual talents or merit, especially in places like the workplace. Women are the largest target audience for beauty products, because why look at what is on the inside without looking at what is being sold on the outside?

Because of consumer culture, where we are taught to sell ourselves into a market that’s demand is never satisfied, women are turning to any means to become the commodity of the moment. Being beautiful seems to equal employability, marriageability, and long-term success. To achieve this, white skin is a must – in the minds of these affected women.

This mentality of white is right has been around since the times of colonization, the time when the white man decided that having “white” skin was the epitome of civilized, and therefore the lighter you were the more “privilege” you were afforded (Glenn 2009). This mentality still exists today, in its more extreme forms, but this form is rarely ever addressed. The need for cosmetics and procedures to lighten ones skin can be seen as misplaced vanity, or as an unwanted legacy of imperialism, or a strange mixture of both. Despite the fact people realize that discrimination based on looks is universally wrong, there seems to be something keeping this mentality strong in the beliefs of women globally.

Globally is being used here, as cosmetic whitening products are a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. There is effectively no country where these creams and lotions are not sold, no matter legal status (Glenn 2009). This basically implies that, globally, women want whiter skin. This also uncovers a larger problem when someone explains what goes into the creation of the facial scrubs.

The main ingredients include mercury salts and hydroquinone, two highly toxic substances, and a large cocktail of steroids and copious amounts of other highly addictive substances, that work together to artificially lighten the skin (Ravichandran 2013). Women are being told that it is okay to put highly lethal powders onto their faces because society says so. Many women don’t know of the harm they are doing, but many also do. In a twisted form of vanity, these women believe that their health is worth less than their beauty (Anekwe 2014).

These women are vulnerable, already facing different stigmas of being of a darker color in their societies, and the markets are effectively preying on these women. I say ‘targeted’ because that is what it is. These women are being lured into a trap by these marketing agencies and are shown pictures of how their lives could be if they were lighter (Goldstein 2012). If you are put into a position where you can see everything you want in your grasp, you’d naturally do anything to get it.

Essentially we try to preach gender and race equality at the front of the stage, and then we sell the very things we are against at the back stage door. Is the contradiction clear?

But moving away from the social values that dictate the need for light skin and the dangers of obtaining light skin, I came across a speech, given by a woman who, only days later, received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Selby 2014). This speech that took everything that is wrong with what was ‘”safe” and “known” about skin color and turned it on its head. Singlehandedly, Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-born Kenya-raised actress who made her film debut in the acclaimed feature film “12 Years A Slave”, managed to raise a question, an opinion, about something that had been shoved under the rug for so long.

As mentioned previously, people never seem to speak out publicly about skin whitening. We never address the often superficial way in which we define what is beautiful. We never speak about the ensuing self-esteem issues, loss of opportunity, false consciousness and stigma that stem from societies where color is more than a shade; it’s a life sentence. Ms. Nyong’o speaks from experience, remembering in her speech a letter from a young girl who was about to purchase whitening cream, because one could not “be so black” in Hollywood, let alone be considered beautiful or successful (Nyong’o 2014). She speaks on the limitations she felt as a young person because she was quite distinctly “not white”, and places a large amount of emphasis on the images she had been force-fed by international media about the ideal beauty. She poses questions about why this is the “reality”, why this is thought to be a “fixed” ideal? For the young girl mentioned in the speech, Lupita Nyong’o was a beacon of hope that girls with “night-shaded skin” could be beautiful, or be a prominent figure in society for reasons other than her body. The message that everyone has potential, that no one standard of beauty is correct, and that is certainly is not worth dying for.

If only Ms. Nyong’o’s message could have come earlier, before the whitening industry became so large, and before the creams and powders and lotions became such a pivotal point of young women’s lives. Yet starting with this one girl, and maybe many more since then, the message that Lupita Nyong’o sends may revolutionize, or even save, many lives – we just need to let it be heard by the over one billion potential users of skin whitening creams for it to work and then we can start to take the “color” out of “colorism” and put it into “colorful”.

References

Anekwe, O. N. (2014). The Global Phenomenon of Skin Bleaching: A Crisis in in Public Health (Part 1). Voices in Bioethics. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://voicesinbioethics.org/2014/01/29/the-global-phenomenon-of-skin-bleaching-a-crisis-in-public-health-an-opinion-editorial-part-1/

Glenn, E. N. (2009). Consuming Lightness: Segmented Markets and Global Capital in the Skin-Whitening Trade. In E. N. Glenn (Ed.), Shades of Difference (pp 166-187). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

Goldstein, R. (2012). Time for a reality check on skin lightening creams. The Conversation. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/time-for-a-reality-check-on-skin-lightening-creams-7770

Nyong’o, L. (2014). Lupita Nyong’o Delivers Moving ‘Black Women in Hollywood’ Acceptance Speech. Essence (Magazine). Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.essence.com/2014/02/27/lupita-nyongo-delivers-moving-black-women-hollywood-acceptance-speech/

Ravichandran, N. (2013). Skin whitening creams can cause long-term damage, doctors warn. The Daily Mail. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2384456/Skin-whitening-creams-cause-long-term-damage-doctors-warn.html

Selby, J. (2014). 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o on racism in beauty: ‘Every day I woke up hoping my skin was a little lighter’. The Independent. Retrieved on October 12th, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/lupita-nyongo-on-racism-in-beauty-every-day-i-woke-up-hoping-my-skin-was-a-little-bit-lighter-9171487.html