South African singer Mshoza, before and after bleaching
It was meant to a pimple blaster, to help with the unsightly outbreaks on my pubescent teenage skin…well that’s what my Aunt told me when she handed me the tiny lime green box. The box contained a small chapstick sized tube. The instructions were simple – apply to affected areas. It was quite bland… pale in colour and odourless. Finally I had a remedy for teenage hormonal skin eruptions! But my excitement was short-lived, after a few weeks of “treatment”, my face began to resemble a patchwork of dark and light splotches.
I was 12 years old and that was my introduction to skin lightening. Some of us enter this realm with honest expectations – get rid of acne and pimples, others for the obvious desire for the elusive “glowing, fair, soft, young, clear, radiant” skin…. 6 words that can make any facial cosmetic product sell sell sell!!!!
Women (and no surprises here…a lot of men ) have a desperate desire that borders on manic obsessions for beautiful fair skin. Studies show that men from all races prefer fairer skinned females.
Fair skin is subconsciously linked to “innocence, purity, modesty, virginity, vulnerability and goodness”.
The preference for light skinned women has remained prevalent over time in all cultures: Asian, European, African, Caribbean and American however they are exceptions like the Maasai in Kenya who associate light complexions with being cursed or witchcraft.
In Europe, during the Industrial revolution, light skin was associated with high social status as those with tanned skin were the poorer classes who worked outdoors. Colonization and racism perpetrated the idea that light skin slaves were more beautiful, smarter and cooperative and they often got jobs working in the house “house Negros” while their darker relatives slaved in the fields “field Negros”. Lighter skin amongst blacks still retains its elevated status to the point that studies have associated blackness with low self esteem.
So in a quest to marry men of a high social standing, beauty, confidence and self esteem, women are supporting a multibillion dollar skin lightening industry. In 2015, the skin lightening industry will be worth 10 billion dollars. The biggest demand for skin lighteners is Asia, in 2009 Asians spent an estimated $18 billion (which contradicts other figures) but with the West becoming more ethnically diverse the demand for products is increasing.
The cost of products on the market range from 50 cents to $150, making it accessible to almost everyone. Studies show disturbing results of the prevalence of skin lightening in Africa, in Bamako-Mali there is 25% prevalence, in Dakar- Senegal 52% prevalence, in Pretoria-South Africa 35%, 60% in Zambia, while Lagos-Nigeria hits an alarming 77%!
This industry has spawned a new language..with terms either being derogatory or flattering. Skin whitening and lightening seems more political correct while bleaching is more critical. In Zambia bukes/beauxing refers to bleaching, in Jamaica browning – light skinned female, cake soap – skin lightening products, in Tanzania – tetrasaiklini, a woman whose skin has become speckled because of the use of bleach cream, and Ghana “fanta face, cocoa cola body” for women who have bleached their face but not their body.
Its not called bleaching for nothing – bleaching involves removing the melanin pigment of the skin. Melanin absorbs ultraviolet light, thus protecting humans from harmful UV radiation. Using chemicals to lessen the concentration of melanin is one of the most common forms of potentially harmful body modification practices in the world.
Active agents in skin bleaching products include hydroquinone, steroids (of which there are many types, with different potencies), mercury, lemon, citric acid and even cement water. I know of a woman to overcome “fanta face, cocoa cola body” would soak her feet in concentrated Jik!
In East Africa, mkorongo is potent mix of Jik, talcum powder, hair relaxer, mashed raw potatoes (for the starch) and battery acid. This is mixed with over the counter products like Clear Tone or Ambi, which women then smear all over their naked bodies.
Jamiacian dancehall artist Vybz Kartel has released a range of skin lightening products
The nasty effects
Some are able to achieve a fairly even skin tone but a majority end up looking like the raw, red, speckle faced dancers in Koffi Olomide videos. Prolonged use of skin lightening products and the concomitant decrease in concentration of melanin increase risks of skin cancer. Skin bleaching also encourages premature aging, irritates the skin, and cause other complications like eczema.
Misuse of Hyrodquinone (found in products like Body Clear, Fair White, Peau Claire) paradoxically leads to blue-black darkening of the skin i.e. increased pigmentation in the skin called ochronosis. In the USA and European Union over the counter sales of products containing hydroquinone are banned. Over-the-counter versions of Fair & White contain 1.9 percent hydroquinone, but bootleg versions are being sold with 4 percent to 5 percent.
Steroids can be useful for treating some skin diseases but treatment must take place under the care of a skin specialist. Long term uncontrolled use of products which have steroids can lead to increase risk of skin infections, fungal infections, scabies, hypertension, elevated blood sugar, skin thinning, poor wound healing, acne and permanent stretch marks!
Mercury is the most harmful culprit found in products like Lemon Herbal Whiting Cream (misleading or what?), Lulanjina, Diana and Fasco. Topical use can lead to mercury poisoning, the symptoms are memory loss or forgetfulness, headache, emotional instability, fatigue, inflammation of gums and mouth. In most cases if not discontinued it leads to kidney damage and psychiatric problems.
There are a lot of counterfeit skin lightening products on the market that will cause harmful, permanent damage to the skin. These products are often mislabeled or have the toxic products omitted.
Why do it?
A friend so obsessed with skin lightening would not only bleach herself with the most toxic of agents but persuaded her husband to bleach and also “treated” her babies skin! I have mixed race friends who bleach to appear more white and worse even only marry people who are the lighter shade of mixed race because
“No one wants a dark skinned baby…they aren’t cute!”
So…. I fail, even with now knowing more of the history, to understand the obsession with light skin. My friends and family say I don’t get it because I am already fair. They laugh at me when I choose to bask in the sun and envy me when I turn white during the cold dark winters. In Europe, the tables are turning with tanned skin becoming more popular as it is associated with a life of wealth and leisure. Tan, capucchino, caramel, or mocha are still several flavours away from dark chocolate but hopefully dark skinned models like Alek Wek will challenge these stereotypes.
We, black women, modify our physical experiences in many ways some more permanent: from hair straightening, hair removal, hair dye, make up, tribal attractive facial scarring, so then….does the argument then hold that sporting a perm, putting a weave in your hair and skin bleaching are all equally acceptable?