Despite movements such as Black is Beautiful, many people still feel that lighter skin is more attractive. Ngunan Adamu speaks to three women in the UK who explain why they prefer to bleach their skin.
The desire for lighter skin
Since the 1960s being Black has been celebrated by movements such as Black is Beautiful and sayings like “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”. Nevertheless, there’s still a substantial number of women and men within the African and Caribbean communities in the UK using skin-lightening and skin-bleaching products. Some parents even go as far as lightening their children’s skin to hide their true complexion so they don’t face the stigma of growing up with dark skin.
The World Health Organisation has reported that Nigeria has the highest number of women using skin-bleaching products in Africa, with 77 per cent of Nigerian women using them. Togo came in second with 59 per cent and South Africa third with 35 per cent.
To fully understand the psychology behind the practice, I spoke to three women who use skin-lightening products. Although I told them that my article was not about demonising skin bleaching as a whole, they chose to remain anonymous, suggesting that the stigma around skin bleaching in the wider Black community remains strong. I chose not to ask the women which products they use.
Unfortunately, only women came forward to talk about skin bleaching, even though an increasing number of men from the African and Caribbean communities use the products for the same reasons women do. Their main aim is to feel attractive and appeal to women who love men with fair skin.
“How I got hooked”
The first woman I spoke to is Nigerian, in her 40s and has used skin-bleaching products for over ten years. She told me that she started using them because she had discolouration around her mouth and neck, and just wanted an even skin tone. She couldn’t find foundation to tone with her complexion, as make-up for Black skin was scarce and what existed was unsuitable.
“What was available made me look orange or like a zombie, so I was introduced to skin-bleaching products when I went to a Black hair and beauty shop in London. The man in the shop just asked me to try a new product and it was that easy.
“I didn’t look up the ingredients or tell anyone; I just followed the instructions and within two weeks people started noticing my complexion and telling me I was glowing. I was getting more attention in clubs and on the streets, so I felt really good and that’s how I got hooked.”
As the years went on, she told me, she noticed visible stretchmarks on parts of her body and her knees, elbows and knuckles were darker. This led to her researching other products, but the funny thing was, she says, “Now I could spot the men and women who were bleaching, and if I liked their complexion I would ask them what cream or soap they were using.” Some people she spoke to were open, while others were offended.
The only reason she would stop bleaching is if her health deteriorated, but on the whole she isn’t worried. “I love bleaching and trying different products, so I don’t think I would stop, as I don’t want to be dark,” she says.
“I loved how fair-skinned she was”
Like my first interviewee, the second woman I spoke to is also Nigerian and living in the UK. At the age of 32, she’s been bleaching her skin for half her life, having started aged 16 because she wanted an even skin tone. She suffered from hyperpigmentation – the darkening of an area of skin or nails caused by increased melanin.
She started with cleansers, toners and skin buffers, but was soon recommended ‘skin brightening’ by a friend from church. She saw instant results: “I honestly thought I would stop bleaching once I got the results I wanted, but I was nervous I would lose what I had worked hard for, which I know might sound crazy.”
The ideology of white beauty and white privilege has been embedded deep into our history.
Now she’s often asked what face cream she uses, “But I usually tell them Nivea or Olay, as I don’t want the questions or the judgement,” she says. “I love being Black; I just want healthy-looking skin.”
Finally, I spoke to a 41-year-old Cameroonian woman living in the UK. She has been bleaching her skin for over ten years and started because she noticed her mother using it. “I loved how fair-skinned she was; she was always getting compliments from family and friends about how beautiful her skin was, and it was only as I got older that I realised she used skin-lightening products,” she says.
Wanting the same glow and compliments as her mother, she started using a cream recommended by a friend. “The first thing I did was research the ingredients, as I had heard a lot of horror stories,” she told me. She also didn’t want the change to be too dramatic, as she was scared about her mum finding out, “Which is surprising,” she says. Like the other women, she doesn’t want to stop.
Harmful advertising and product bans
Why is it that so many of us in the Black community still have Eurocentric beauty ideologies? The ideology of white beauty and white privilege has been embedded so deep into our history that there is no question that it has seeped into the upbringing of young Black people today. Colonialism has taught us that being light-skinned or white can afford you a level of privilege in a global society.
This is especially apparent in billboard advertising in African countries and television adverts in India. One of these shows a poor, dark-skinned Indian girl who lightens her skin and gets the job, the man and the family she’s always wanted. At the end of the advert she’s seen driving into the sunset in a drop-top convertible car, very persuasively presenting the privileges of fair skin.
There is still a long way to go, but in January 2019 Rwanda became the third African nation to join South Africa and Ghana in a ban on skin-bleaching products and advertisements for them. However, banning these products will not stop women from bleaching their skin: the only alternative is to create more awareness around the long-term negative effects of bleaching, as well as educating people about the effects of colourism within the African and Caribbean communities.
About the contributors
Ngunan Adamu is a radio presenter and producer for BBC Radio Merseyside, CEO and founder of iWoman Academy/Media, and an international multimedia trainer for the BBC.
Amaal Said is a Danish-born Somali photographer and poet, based in London. Her photographs have been featured in Vogue, the Guardian and the New Yorker. In 2017, she was exhibited in Los Angeles, and in 2018 her photography was featured in the fourth volume of African Lens and exhibited in Accra, Ghana.