Toning. Lightening. Brightening. Whitening. While the marketing slogans promoting skin enhancement in Africa might be varied, the underlying effects are pretty identical. Although I do not use skin lightening products, I live in Nigeria where millions of women do.
On offer in my local shops are a myriad of products designed to make dark skin lighter: Kojic acid soaps, fade creams, hydroquinone creams, whitening shower gels made from goat milk and for the more determined: skin lightening injections.
So when last month Vera Sidika, a popular Kenyan model and socialite, publicly admitted to spending tons of money bleaching her skin, she added fuel to an already smoking hot fire. Just one admission was enough to re-ignite the fierce debate about Africans’s perception of beauty.
A bullish Sidika says she is proud of the way she looks and thinks African societies are hypocritical on this thorny issue. But her honesty roused the ire of many social media users across the continent.
Passions inevitably run high among Africans whenever someone brings into play racial issues. On the topic of skin whitening, emotionally charged slogans such as “black is beautiful” are often employed in an attempt to make women like Sidika feel as if they are somehow betraying their race. Such women are then accused of having inferiority complexes towards white people.
In Nigeria, where 77 per cent of women use skin lightening products,according to a recent World Health Organisation report, the mainstream African commentariat, which is mostly male-dominated, projects a strong bias against the practice. I myself am a dark skinned Nigerian woman who does not use whitening creams or soaps, but I feel that while there are valid health concerns as to the side-effects of skin lightening products, it should remain an individual’s prerogative to be who or what they want to be.
Yes, black is beautiful, but so also is white, brown, yellow and the many shades in between.
When white people use tanning lotions, solariums and other methods to darken their skin, it is treated as par for the course and other white people don’t feel the need to remind them that “white is beautiful”. In fact, such a statement would likely be regarded as racist by members of other races. Yes, I understand that there was a specific historical context in the US and elsewhere which, at the time, necessitated the use of the “black is beautiful” slogan in order to boost black people’s sense of self-worth and identity, but this is 2014 and we should have gotten beyond that by now. Or are self-affirming slogans going to be needed by black people forever?
People’s desire to have a particular skin tone, be it a darker or lighter one, stems from them wanting to be more attractive and sometimes for others to take notice. And more often than not, in the case of an individual who has undergone skin lightening here in Africa, it works. The critics might be unwilling to concede this publicly, but the harsh truth is that in Africa, lighter skinned girls do get more attention and are more appreciated than darker skinned women.
It is not unusual to often hear Nigerian men say things like: “Oh, I met this beautiful girl the other day, she had a great body…and she was fair in complexion.” But then these same men would hypocritically voice outrage if a Nigerian woman, especially one in the public eye, openly admitted to bleaching her skin. If skin tone didn’t matter at all to Nigerian men, skin lightening creams and soaps wouldn’t be flying off the shelves over here as they are right now. In Nigerian music videos too, one can notice a glaring preference for lighter skinned females. The niggling suspicion remains that my society is more self delusional on questions of identity and its perception of beauty than it cares to admit.
Physical attraction is instinctive and lighter skinned women are bound to attract more attention from men in a dark skinned society such as Nigeria–just like darker skinned people do in predominantly white societies. Such interest does not have to be due to any sort of complex and is often simply mere curiosity of the different.
Skin lightening should not be automatically regarded as an individual’s outright rejection of their race. If a woman feels that lightening her skin will make her prettier or more confident, then society should let her be and not impose itself as judge and jury on her concept of beauty. It is high-time Africans stop being hysterical and overly-defensive about issues of their self worth and identity.