Black is beauty: why skin lightening is a really bad idea

As I write, I can’t help but hum the words to “brown skin, you know I love your brown skin…”a famous song by Indie Arie. I indeed love my brown skin. But unfortunately, I can’t say the same for other black women around the world. This is because of the increased use of skin lightening products by women of colour to “enhance” themselves. The belief is that the whiter the skin, the more beautiful it is.

What is skin lightening?

According to Dr. Christopher Charles, skin lightening is “the process of bleaching the skin through the use of homemade, cosmetic and dermatological products”. These products often include (with varying doses), hydroquinone, kojic acid, retinoid, topical steroids, and even mercury. What these products do is that they prevent or reduce the production of melanin (melanin is the key ingredient that gives us our beautiful sun-kissed complexion and protects us from sun damage). I found it interesting that the practice of skin lightening transcends race, social class, sex (yes even men bleach their skins) and level of education. These days a lot of people seem to bleach their skin. But what’s even more worrying is that the trend seems to making head waves very close to home. According to a recent study conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 77% of women in Nigeria use skin lightening products. This is closely followed by Togo with 59% and Senegal with 27%. These figures are quite astonishing to be honest, and not in a good way.

The harmful effects of skin lightening

Skin lightening is harmful for a myriad of reasons. The practice has been linked skin cancer and kidney damage. It has been linked to irreversible skin damage, redness of the skin, prominent blood vessels, uneven skin tone, extreme skin sensitivity and excessive facial hair growth (particularly around the neck and mouth area in women). It is also becoming a great public health concern. The mercury content of these products is eventually discharged as waste water (when users wash or bath with the products). Mercury is then transferred into the environment and food chain, from there a pregnant woman may ingest food containing mercury particles and could give birth to a baby that may later suffer from serious developmental problems.

Besides the medical complications of skin lightening, there are also social and psychological problems. One such problem is public ridicule. In Nigeria, people who lighten their skin are often made fun off, and referred to as “fanta face, coca cola body” because of the distorted look that results when the product is used on the face but not on the rest of the body.  Skin lightening is also highly addictive. Many people report a skin “glow” once they use these products and because of the need to maintain this look, they find it difficult to stop. A major psychological effect of skin bleaching is the perception that to be beautiful, you have to be light skinned, which I believe is a flawed perception and gross misunderstanding of black skin. Because it perpetuates a false sense of identity and self-worth, and has far reaching effects on the psyche of a society.

What influences skin lightening?

I discovered that a couple of factors influence people to lighten their skin complexion. The primary leading factor for why people choose to lighten their skin is the media. The media constantly bombards us with images of light-skinned women (don’t get me wrong I love light skinned sistas). Whether TV commercials, movies, music videos etc, we are always shown imagery of light-skinned women. And eventually these imagery starts to shape perceptions and perceptions later translate into actions. The media should balance its portrayal of both light and dark skinned women, so as to address this skewed perception of beauty. Societal acceptance is another important reason. I have often heard girls say “only if I were light-skinned I would have a boyfriend or that guy would like me”. Some people also believe that their chance of getting a job or rising in their career is closely linked to the shade of their skin tone. Socialisation is also another factor that influences skin lightening. Some people were raised to believe that only light-skinned people are beautiful. Such people will obviously grow up with that ingrained idea in their minds and if they happen to be born with a darker skin tone, they will take the necessary measures to change that (unfortunate as it may sound).

Another factor is peer pressure. Peer pressure plays a huge role in shaping our identity and self-worth and as such, if skin lightening happens to be trending among our friends, we might just try it out to fit in (I mean no kid wants to feel left out). But the unfortunate thing is that skin lightening (is not like choosing to dye your entire eyebrow turquoise), it has deep psychological and far-reaching effects. Low-self esteem is also a reason for skin lightening. Unfortunately some people have a low sense of self worth and they feel that the only way to improve the way they feel about themselves is to lighten their skin tone. I see this as pretty much treating the symptom of a disease but not the cause. Skin lightening will not fix the root cause of self-esteem issues, as old self image issues will likely remerge. In such cases a psychologist is probably better positioned to help work through self-esteem issues, than skin lightening products ever could.

Another contributory factor to skin lightening is mis-education. A lot of people underestimate the medical, social and psychological effects of skin lightening. Others don’t have the slightest clue about the nature of (poisons) and harmful products that go into these products. And lastly, medical conditions like scaring caused by acne or even vitilago (the skin condition Michael Jackson suffered from) has forced some to lighten their skin. Doctors often prescribe skin lightening products to help patients even out skin tone caused by acne scarring or other skin problems. But under such circumstances, frequency, usage and dosage are strictly monitored. However, because of the addictive nature of skin lightening products users often don’t stop, even after the medical condition has been corrected.

Double standards

When it comes to dark skin, there is a serious doze of double standards going around. I have always asked myself, why is it okay for a dark skinned man to be called “dark, tall and handsome” but for a dark skinned woman it’s different. Instead you hear men say stuff like “only if she was light-skinned” or “I don’t usually date dark-skinned women”. I think it’s quite disgusting and utterly offensive to be honest.  I feel we have come to an age especially as black people that this obsession with skin complexion comes to an end. Enough with the “racial hierarchies” and “societal intolerance”. We are beautiful, whether black, brown, tanned, orange or whatever colour. After all, beauty is only skin deep (just ask a man who married a woman for her light-skin tone and she turned out to be his worst nightmare!).

Why dark is beautiful

Dark skinned women are beautiful for many reasons. Dark women just have a glow about them (I can’t help but admire a beautiful dark skinned woman, be it at the mall, at church, on TV or anywhere). Our dark skinned tone protects us from so many of the elements, be it sun or insects like mosquitoes. Because of the nature of our skin pigmentation we aren’t susceptible to red scarring and marks that is common among lighter skin tones.

Despite the apparent surge in skin lightening, there is hope. Many local and international celebrities like; Tiwa Savage (from Nigeria), Tika Sumpter (from gossip girl and Tyler Perry’s the have’s and the have not’s), Lupita Nyong’o (from 12 years a slave) and Sudanese native, and youtube sensation, Nikki Perkins, (pictured above) all choose to rock their beautiful natural dark skin tone. These women have shown that black women can be beautiful in their own skin and do not need to turn to skin lightening to elevate their status in society. I think we can learn a thing or two from these beautiful black sistas.

A few last words

As I write the concluding section of this piece, I will leave you with the words of a famous Nigerian novelist and writer—“My greatest vanity is my skin. It is the colour of gingerbread and, thanks to my mother’s genes, smooth and mostly blemish-free”—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

PHOTO CREDIT: Nikki Perkins

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