But one cannot address skin bleaching in Nigeria, and largely Africa, without mentioning the deep-seated colourism that is ingrained in the people and in a society where having a lighter skin tone is perceived as the standard of beauty…
By Ijeoma Anastasia Ntada
In recent times, there has been lots of adulation for dark skin. Across media channels, there seems to be a movement that embraces the “natural” dark skin, such as with songs like Beyoncé and Wizkid’s “Brown Skin Girl”, and Halle’s “Angel”. Instagram, too, is replete with “melanin popping” hashtags. But these praises for dark skin appear to be merely perfunctory and surface-level, as skin bleaching remains a global problem that has presented a health emergency. It makes me wonder whether the love and admiration for melanin-laden skin exists only on the Internet.
In sub-Saharan Africa, skin bleaching has carried on for the past four decades, with a prevalence rate of 40%-72% among the population. According to the World Health Organisation, Nigeria raises the bar, having the highest bleaching rate in Africa, with 77% of Nigerian women using bleaching products. Skin bleaching has become a norm in the continent, due to the perceived privileges associated with having a lighter skin tone. This desire is so intense that people go as far as buying unregistered products with compositions that are unclear or vaguely defined. Somehow, the formulators of these products sell the illusion that buyers can achieve the perfect (light) skin they desire within a short time interval with little or no consequence. Recently in Nigeria, a social media user, verydarkman, has been on a sort of crusade on social media, calling out some independent beauty brands that formulate and market different skin products without the approval of NAFDAC, the country’s food, drug, and cosmetic regulatory agency. His callouts have been met with mixed reactions. For some people, he is the Messiah sent to deliver Nigerians from the shackles of self-acclaimed dermatologists. For others, he is simply out to destroy their businesses.
Expectedly, no one ever openly admits to be deliberately making their skins lighter. In the cosmetic industry, skin-bleaching products are sold under labels that attempt to conceal their purpose in plain sight. For instance, no one walks into a beauty store and requests a bleaching lotion. Instead, they are brandished and marketed under fancier and more acceptable labels such as “toning”, “lightening” and “glowing” skin care products. A quick stroll on Instagram, and you’d find products with hilarious titles like “Snow White Lotion”, “Instant Glow”, and so many others.
But one cannot address skin bleaching in Nigeria, and largely Africa, without mentioning the deep-seated colourism that is ingrained in the people and in a society where having a lighter skin tone is perceived as the standard of beauty. Some might argue that this standardisation and preference for light skin stems from Africa’s colonial history. Colonisation and Western influences in Nigeria, for example, instilled the belief that everything about our culture and people is inferior to that of the West. From learning systems to religion to food and even beauty standards that place a premium on lighter skin complexions. Colonisation imprinted the idea of colourism in Nigerians, and it has been passed down to the present times.
This prejudice based on skin tones is expressed in various ways in everyday African society, both in enlightened and unenlightened spaces. Some time ago, I paid a visit to a woman who had just given birth and I couldn’t help but notice a backhanded compliment from one of the well-wishers regarding the baby. “He’s such a fine child, but he’d have been finer with a light skin like his sister”, the person said, and a lot of the observers present seemed to agree with her. I thought to myself, this is how it all begins. If such a child is raised around such people who would always see his dark skin as inferior, he could grow to hate his skin tone and find more comfort in bleaching his skin in order to conform to the beauty standard. At a beauty pageant at my school last semester, in making commentaries about two contestants, my friend and I seemed to agree and favoured the light-skinned over the dark-skinned contender, even as the latter out-performed the former. This incident made me even more aware of how much skin colour can affect how an individual is perceived, especially in the entertainment industry where looks are emphasised.
In a recent conversation with a lady who has bleached her skin, she stated that she resorted to bleaching because did not feel pretty enough by conventional standards. “I am not beautiful enough with a dark skin like this”, she said. As she revealed, most of the men she has encountered seem to have a preference for light-skinned women. There also seems to be an apparent socioeconomic benefit attached to the light skin that has made skin bleaching so rampant and commonplace in Nigeria. In a publication in the Sun paper, Bisi Eretan, the CEO of Labisi Oils Hom, shared a conversation she had with a Nollywood actress where the actress revealed that light skin seems more attractive on the screen. For established actors, skin tone may not pose so much of a challenge, but budding ones may be forced to undergo skin bleaching to fit in.
Colourism permeates many socioeconomic spaces, and it can be argued that if being light-skinned would increase the chances of climbing up the social or economic ladder, then there is a tendency to indulge. In certain corporate spaces, it has been said that dark-skinned women are not usually considered because they do not have the type of beauty it takes to reel in customers. A lady who works with an ushering agency spoke to me about the discrimination experienced due to skin complexion. She said, “Many ushering agencies don’t like hiring dark-skinned girls because they’re not attractive like that… they’re beautiful, but light-skinned girls are very lovely to look at.”
Kenyan-Mexican Oscar-winning actress, Lupita Nyong’o, in a viral Youtube video, shared that she was teased for her “night-shaded” skin and she would go to bed praying to wake up lighter. Nyong’o went on to share that she realised that there was no shade to her beauty and embraced her dark skin. Like Nyongo’o, a lot of Black women grew up believing the fallacy that to be dark-skinned is to be inadequate. And while some are confident enough to embrace themselves in spite of societal standards, the majority still uphold this belief and resort to bleaching as a way of validating their beauty.
This craze extends to the extreme sometimes, even up to babies and unborn children. In 2018, Ghana’s Food and Drug Authority discovered that pregnant women were ingesting controlled substances such as glutathione pills with the intention of lightening their unborn babies without considering the harm this could pose. Some time ago, I also stumbled on a Facebook made by a nutritionist, Nsikak Effiong, who makes meal plans. A pregnant woman requested a meal plan to make her baby fair. Today, a lot of women continue bleaching their babies because they assume that lighter babies are more aesthetically appealing, continuing the deep-seated belief in the inferiority of dark skin. Dr Olufolakemi Cole-Adeife, a consultant dermatologist and member of the Nigerian Association of Dermatologists(NAN), reacted to the ugly trend of bleaching children by saying, “Mothers, please do not push your insecurity about your skin onto your babies or children.”
Skin bleaching ushers in a lot of unpleasant skin conditions with the most obvious being patchy skin and depigmentation. Bleaching products damage the skin’s natural barrier and expose it to a myriad of dangers, from over-sensitivity to loss of the skin’s natural elasticity, a graver consequence being skin cancer. Kidney and liver damage have also been associated with skin bleaching. In a paper published by Yemisi Bokini on TheBMJ, a consultant nephrologist at Delta State University Teaching Hospital disclosed that kidney diseases are on the rise and some of them are linked to the chemicals used in skin bleaching.
While health agencies continue pushing for a ban on bleaching products, a sad reality still prevails and there is a need to address the root of the problem —colourism. We need to have more conversations about colourism and enlighten individuals that skin colour does not define people. Children need to be taught that there is nothing wrong with being dark-skinned and that nothing about their skin needs to be modified to suit popular appeal. Perhaps, with these conversations, we can conquer colourism and eventually bring down the epidemic that is skin bleaching in Africa.
Ijeoma Anastasia Ntada writes and reads poetry, fiction and nonfiction. She has a couple of poems published in the Love Anthology, The Ducor Review, Visual Verse, Praxis Review and other places. Ijeoma is also a photography enthusiast. She takes beautiful photographs and makes them art. When Ijeoma isn’t studying to become a Laboratory Scientist, you’ll find her talking about Afro Hair, femininity, and embracing all of her girlhood.
Cover photo credit: Glossier on Pinterest