My Black Is Shine!
A few years ago, I wrote a poem titled, ‘So, What I’m Black!’ Reading it again, these words jumped at me. “So, what I’m BLACK? My BLACK is power. My BLACK is strength. My BLACK is beauty. My BLACK is survival. Yes I’m BLACK but I’m much more than my colour.” However, it is not every dark-skinned woman who thinks she is much more than her skin colour. In fact there are those who believe their skin colour has put them in a disadvantageous position. Their skin colour is what defines them and shapes their outlook on life. Forgive me but do I dare say some might even think being dark skinned is a curse and the reason behind heir lack of success.
Skin bleaching is surrounded by intense controversy and has evoked heated debates over the years. For a very long time, it was predominantly associated to black women and men but that trend has changed. Asian men and women now use bleaching cream too. In the UK, the use of bleaching cream is prevalent in African, Afro-Caribbean and Asian communities. From Africa to Asia to Europe and the Caribbean, skin bleaching seems to have established itself as one of the cultural and societal strands that binds men and women.
A few weeks back, I went into a chemist to pick up my medication and a lady came in to do the same. When she stretched out her hand to collect it from the pharmacist, her skin looked like a solid pound of freshly made black African soap (Dudu – a traditional soap made in West Africa). My eyes found their way to her feet and I thought to myself, she should know better than to wear open-toe pumps. Interestingly, this lady was not ugly. She was tall with an oval shaped face and a set of teeth that I would kill for. I tried to imagine what she looked like in her younger days and why she felt she needed to bleach her skin to enhance her beauty.
Personally, I believe you have no justification outside a medical condition for using bleaching cream and those prescribed by doctors. Though I question why bleaching creams are prescribed in certain scenarios, I have no right to deny anyone an opportunity to correct a medical disorder. Different people have different reasons why they bleach their skin. One of such reasons, recently left me astounded when a young lady from Kenya, during a BBC World Service radio documentary said “it makes her look smart”. What on earth has bleaching your skin got to do with you looking smart? If anything, it tells me you are very stupid. Others have simply put it down to a lack of self-esteem, insecurity, racism and Africans from different quarters blame a lack of pride and confidence in ‘their African skin’.
I grew up in Nigeria, and I have heard of ladies, who bleach their skin because their men like it but this is not particular to Nigeria. In other African countries like Burundi, Congo, Uganda and Tanzania, the proliferation of skin bleaching among women and men is now of an epidemic proportion. In 2002, a survey conducted in Ghana and Nigeria showed the use of skin bleaching products was at 75 percent. While people were using these products at an alarming rate, it was also generating huge profits for its European based manufacturers. Though skin bleaching products are banned in the UK, they are still been produced and shipped over to Africa and other parts of the world. The locally produced ones are said to be harsher than those produced in Europe and it is illegal to import such creams into the UK.
In Kenya, a campaign called Safe Skin was recently launched with the theme Beauty Without Harm For The African Woman. It aims to inform and educate women about the dangers of skin bleaching in the hope that this will stop them from harming themselves. Grace Ibukunoluwa is professional make-up artist. She said, “I think skin bleaching is a very personal choice which can stem from a number of factors – mainly insecurity.” On the other hand, psychologists claim the demand for bleaching products by African, Caribbean and Asian women can be traced to perceptions that light skinned or white people are more successful, intelligent and sexually desirable.
Not only is skin bleaching an expensive choice, it is also an arduous full-time job with grave consequences. You must apply it everyday to keep-up the appearance or risk your skin looking like burnt meat with dark patches. Considering the medical dangers associated with skin bleaching, you cannot help but ask why people still use these poisonous products?
Bleaching creams are abrasive and erode the top layers of the skin and cause irreversible damage to one’s skin. The key ingredients of these creams are hydroquinone and mercury, which are described as harmful chemicals. Hydroquinone is said to be a severely toxic and powerful chemical which is used in photo processing, rubber manufacturing and acts as an active ingredient in hair dyes. It also has the ability to damage the collagen fibre that makes the skin. Mercury, its partner in crime is a carcinogenic substance which can cause cancer. The continuous application of hydroquinone or mercury reacts with ultra violet rays and re-oxidise, which leads to more pigmentation and premature ageing. This leads to a vicious cycle which alters the natural structure of the skin and inhibits the production of Melanin, the skin’s natural protection. The breakdown of melanin in the skin leaves it susceptible to skin cancer. In the long term, people who use bleaching cream risk skin cancer, liver damage, kidney failure, metabolic disorders, tissue problems surrounding the eyes, ears and joints, and possible neurological damage.
While bleaching creams can cause internal damage to those using them, it also has the ability to inflict permanent physical damage on them. This includes dark patches on the face as a result of sunburn which is due to the fact that bleaching thins the skin and makes it vulnerable to sun damage. The user can also see an outbreak of pimples all over their face and they are not your average pimples, but the ones that belong to the major league and come with redness and irritation on the face as well as discoloration and hyper-pigmentation.
Hence, why are bleaching creams still available for sale? It seems there is a code that has been agreed upon – The sale of bleaching creams cannot be policed neither can the companies that make them be shut down. On the other hand, you have to question how we got sucked into the notion that bleaching your skin is what makes one beautiful? I have purposely not gone down the route of white slave masters planting seeds of low self-esteem in our ancestors that light skin was better than black skin during the slave trade era and colonialism because we have come a long way. While we still have a lot of work to do, we do have to take responsibility for our actions today. The blame game will not heal the thousands and I dare to assume, millions of women around the world, whose bodies have been poisoned with these dangerous chemicals because they could not say no to something that has the ability to cause them immense harm. Their appearance seemed to matter more than their health. Yes, we sadly live in a world where standards of beauty are defined by how skinny you look and the colour of hair on your head. I don’t deny women in Africa and other parts of the world need to be educated about the dangers of skin bleaching but this is something that has been going on for years, by now people would have seen the effects on their skin and know something is just not right.
Take the story of Shenise Farrell, an African woman who recently went to extreme lengths to get herself blue eyes which almost left her blind. This begets the question, what more do you need to change in order to accept yourself? The author of the article about Farrell’s ordeal on the Ligali website says the desire of African men and women to look different is inflicted self-abuse and an attempt to reject their natural African features in order to obtain and conform to a euro-centric cultural aesthetic of beauty. I agree with the self-abuse because these are choices that we make as individuals. However, I believe until people can look at themselves in the mirror and say my ‘Black is Shine,’ they will not feel the need to change their skin colour in order to be accepted or feel beautiful.
This article was first published in the New African Woman magazine, edition 3, 2009.
Images: Blacksuperwoman.com, The Tyra Banks show website, This Day, Tanzania and ABC News