The Statesman (Kokomlemle, Accra, Ghana), June 20, 2007
“When you are lighter, people pay more attention to you. It makes you more important and the rich men find you attractive,” the sentiments of an Accra-based woman with light skin and dark knuckles.
Yet, the self-hate phenomenon of skin-bleaching is not limited to black women alone. The music fans of men like Michael Jackson and the famous Lumba Brothers, Charles Kwadwo Fosu (Daddy Lumba) and Nana Acheampong, have seen the skin of the stars go lighter and lighter with every album hit. Through multiple surgeries, Michael Jackson has arguably become transracial.
Bleaching is often attributed to extreme low self-esteem, and a misplaced desire to be better appreciated.
But, there is a growing repugnance within black communities worldwide against bleaching.
“Skin Bleaching” is the term applied to the process of cosmetic methods used to whiten the skin. It has for a long time been considered a common practice in dark skinned women in sub-Saharan Africa although increasingly, some dark skinned men have also taken to skin bleaching.
The ideology and implementation of “Skin Bleaching” has been highly criticised throughout its existence as it has negative connotations related to image, identity and race based aesthetics not to mention certain severe skin conditions associated with the long term use of skin bleaching cosmetics.
According to a report last July by Ibram Rogers, however, the European aesthetics of beauty and social rank have reached the shores of Africa, and are wreaking psychological and physical havoc on residents of Accra, Ghana, two studies suggested.
In two examinations conducted in 2005 by Jocelyn Mackey, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University, more than 200 Ghanaian students aged 8 to 18 consistently equated attractiveness, opportunity, power and acceptance with lighter skin colour.
“The results from this study speak to the impact that the social and cultural climate has on the self-esteem of the Ghanaian students,” Mackey says.
Another study reveals that many Ghanaians are turning to harmful skin-bleaching products to lighten their skin in hopes of being perceived as more attractive and successful.
Yaba A Blay, a doctoral candidate in Temple University’s African-American studies department, conducted a study last summer in which she surveyed approximately 600 residents of Accra and interviewed another 40 who reported bleaching their skin.
Blay also interviewed government officials, medical personnel and product merchants, and reviewed public documents and media materials as source material for her dissertation, “Yellow Fever: Skin Bleaching and the Aesthetico-cultural Gendered Politics of Skin Color in Ghana.”
“Despite attempts by the Ghanaian government to ban bleaching products and the extreme health risks including skin cancer, brain and kidney damage and sometimes death, the practice of skin bleaching is seemingly on the rise,” says Blay.
“It appears that in the context of global White supremacy, skin bleaching represents an attempt to gain access to the social status and mobility often reserved not only for whites, but for lighter-skinned persons of African descent.”
This psychological phenomenon of extolling lighter skin is prevalent in black communities worldwide.
“These perception are the result of learned behaviour and beliefs due to social factors and opportunities,” Mackey says. “Many Ghanaians who I spoke with believe that lighter skin is associated with wealth and power.”
In the study on skin bleaching, Blay found that Ghanaian women tend to bleach their skin at a disproportionately higher rate than Ghanaian men. That”s because the white ideal is consistently promoted to female consumers, Blay says.
Furthermore, Blay says the rational for skin bleaching is different for Ghanaian men and women.
“Ghanaian women often admit to bleaching in order to look more beautiful, noticeable and fashionable, while Ghanaian men who report bleaching do so as a means to appear of higher status and to gain more respect,” she says.
Ultimately, Blay says that a form of “commodity racism—the practice of using Whiteness to sell products to predominately Black consumers” is the underlying reason for the practice of skin bleaching.
“It has greatly influenced Africans’ perceptions that with the assistance of particular products—bleaching creams—they can approximate Whiteness, and as such reap all of the benefits, whether actual or perceived, afforded to Whiteness,” she says.
The origin of skin colour derives from a substance known as Melanin. Melanin determines areas of uneven pigmentation. It affects most people, regardless of ethnic background or skin colour. Skin may either appear lighter or darker than normal; there may be blotchy, uneven areas, patches of brown to gray discolouration or freckling.
Such skin pigmentation disorders occur because the body produces either too much or too little melanin. Melanin is the pigment produced by melanocyte cells and is triggered by an enzyme called tyrosinase.
Increasingly, people are becoming preoccupied with blocking the production of Melanin, thus are finding treatments which inhibit the production of tyrosinase, namely Hydroquinone, steroid and Mercury based treatments.
Hydroquione treatments are considered safe, however if too much is applied, then irritations on the skin can be caused. However, in countries such as France the use of Hydroquione has been banned due to the fears of cancer risk that it can potentially cause.
Although highly popular, the use of skin whitening products has come under heavy criticism due to the results that they can cause. One of the most detrimental effects that skin whitening products can have is the effect towards ones IQ. Skin whitening products, often contain neurotoxins such as Mercury and the aforementioned Hydroquinone as the main active ingredient.
Some bleaching creams also contain steroids of medium-potent to potent strength such as betamethasone or clobetasol. These steroid containing creams tend to cause thinning of the skin, making it more prone to disorders and breakage on parts of the body where friction occurs.
In some cases, skin lightening creams have been reported to cause acne and caused skin to become so delicate that it could be damaged even through a simple scratch. In other cases, these bleaching agents have ironically turned the skin black when applied over a long period of time.
Although skin whitening may provide personal satisfaction in the form of perceived beauty, what should perhaps be readdressed is the negative effects that they can have both on body and mind.
If they must be used either to treat skin discolourations, tone down dark spots or to cure other disorders, then users must be cautioned to keep off skin lightening products with hydroquinone, mercury and steroids and to apply only to affected areas of the skin.