Reflections

In the quest for light skin

By Tafadzwa Razemba, Zimbabwe:

Walking around in the streets, it’s become quite noticeable that more and more women have a strange, almost pasty look to their skin tone. Sometimes this is spread over their bodies; often it’s just on their faces. With their light face, and darker ears, chest, arms and legs, what they would be called in Nigeria is 'Fanta face, Coca Cola legs'. Coupled with excessive makeup, this can be quite a ghastly sight, most likely unbeknownst to the owner of the face. This is all thanks to the increasing popularity of skin lightening creams, injections and pills that are spreading from neighbouring countries and especially West & Central Africa.

I saw a distant relative of mine, whom I hadn’t seen in years. This young woman who from what I remembered used to have beautiful smooth glowing brown skin, looked at me shyly with a face that looked like it had had some colour scrubbed out of it. At the time, with my lack of knowledge of the use of these creams, I thought she had been sick. She was a few shades lighter facially, a little darker elsewhere, but without the smoothness and glow from years before. I didn’t enquire on her sickness; I didn’t want to be rude. A few weeks later, I was told she had used a skin lightening cream bought from South Africa. Firstly, I was surprised because she had a beautiful skin colour and tone already; she really wasn’t even close to being dark and at the time, I didn't understand why one would actually try changing their skin colour. Pushing my judgments aside, apparently light skin is to black people, what blonde hair is to white people. Except that blonde hair doesn’t permanently alter the hair that grows out of the head and it can be cut off when the need arises. On the other hand, skin lightening and whitening can cause permanent damage.

Why would a woman do this to herself, begs the question: Is it for men? Is it because of her insecurities, or hatred of self? I believe a lot of it is to do with the media and the legacy of colonialism or slavery. Media is such a powerful tool and can change the perceptions of people without them even realizing it. We, especially in Africa, look to the West and laud most things western. Most depictions of black American men, for example, in television shows, movies and music videos go for very light skin black women (mainly those of mixed race) or women of other races completely. To the young African males who see their heroes doing a certain thing, would want to emulate them. And the young African women start to see this Eurocentric ideal of beauty. This is one of the reasons why I'm so happy that Lupita Nyong'o is being celebrated not only for her acting, but her beautiful dark skin. She too, prayed for lighter skin because she was teased so much growing up in Kenya. The celebration of her skin though, seems to be led mostly by white people. Yet her skin colour is not a trend, it's a permanent feature of her.

The effect of colonialism is still rampant even decades after in some Asian and African countries, and this skin colour obsession is one of these effects. The idea of being fair and white is so deep ingrained even in countries like China and Japan. Some Chinese people view dark skin, as bad luck. I remember once seeing an advert by Fair and Lovely that was being marketed to the Asian sub-continent. This particular advert of a skin whitening product was aggressively marketed to young girls; during each ad break it was on. The dark-toned Asian girl in the advert would be seen as undesirable and insecure, but after she used the product, she was suddenly transformed into a self-assured and successful woman. After only a few weeks, she is a new person; white, beautiful, attractive and popular.
Here in Zimbabwe, it's not yet as in-your-face, although you will definitely find the illegal whitening stuff at street corners and flea markets. The adverts I have seen here are for skin brighteners and complexion restorers. The adverts usually don't mention that these products could contain harmful substances. The labeling of the illegal products also usually don't disclose the fact that they contain mercury, which can damage the nervous system and/or hydroquinone and steroids. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening creams. In India, two thirds of all skin products contain lightening agents. No one is born hating their skin colour or complexion. Bollywood plays a critical role in re-enforcing this message, especially to women, and keeping the myth alive in Asia. In Africa, Nollywood is doing the same. It is a false narrative that feeds the ridiculously successful marketing of whitening creams.

We are all free to do what we want with our bodies and skin and as women we all set our own ideals on beauty. The constant marketing, direct advertisements or other channels, are what I'm against. Black people have incredible range, when it comes to skin colour, and I believe that is one of the best things about our skin. The physical chains of colonialism and slavery have long been broken, but the mental shackles remain for many people around the world. The message to women continues to be that lighter skin means success in all realms of your life. As black people especially, we all need to stand on the same side of the fence, and not allow Eurocentric ideals to disempower us; looking down or treating each other different because of different shades of skin.
Influencing people to try change their skin colour with these products that are dangerous, that monetize colonialism and fuel self-hatred.

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