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In Nigeria, light-skinned women are placed upon a high pedestal. Nigeria just loves and appreciates its light-skinned women. Like the caste system in India, granting privilege based on skin tone, Nigeria seems to be going through the same in a county where we all carry the African hair. Over the past 8 years, Nigerian comedians and social media influencers have constantly talked about the ‘light-skinned trend’ amongst Nigerian millennials to intensify the stigma that built up over the 20 years preceding 2010. The formulated ‘laiskin’ is now a colloquialism of lighthearted importance.
When I went to Nigeria last summer you can barely walk 100 feet a day in a major Nigerian city without seeing a fake light-skinned person. Out of the 30 light-skinned Nigerians you encounter a day, your mind fixates on at least, 10 to examine for evidence of bleaching and ‘color-blocking’ on body parts; the blatant discoloration amongst the body colors with facial colors reddening while the body remains yellow or ivory.
Personally, I didn’t feel like I need to be lighter, but I certainly don’t want to get darker. Like so many Nigerian girls and women, I found myself avoiding the sun as much as I could, a habit that continued into my early adulthood. My older sister is very light-skinned, and growing up, it was noticeable how both men and women raved over her. Somewhere in the back of my head, I too had equated lighter skin tone with beauty.
As I entered my early 20s, I began to interrogate beauty standards and those ideals started to lose their power. But still, despite all the work I’ve done to accept my natural color, when I walk into a salon to get my eyebrows waxed, someone inevitably recommends a product to, as they put it, “enhance my glow.”
Today, the global skin lightening industry is estimated to be in the multibillion-dollar range. In Africa, Nigeria is the largest consumer of skin lightening products. While there is not alot of data on the use of skin lightening products around the world, a World Health Organization report claims that 77 percent of Nigerian women use them on a regular basis. Countries like Togo, South Africa, and Senegal are not too far behind. Skin lightening, however, is not limited to Africa. In 2017, according to Future Market Insights, Asia-Pacific made up more than half of the global market for skin lightening products, with China accounting for about 40 percent of sales, Japan 21 percent, and Korea 18 percent.
In Africa, there is no documented history of when skin bleaching took off, but Yaba Blay, who teaches black body politics and gender politics at North Carolina Central University, believes that it began as African countries gained their independence. In a 2018 interview with the online publication Byrdie, Blay says that white women have historically used their whiteness as a way to communicate purity. This belief was adapted to Africa, and around the time of independence, skin lightening began “exploding.”
Fashion photographers have very little power to change the status quo because clients usually insist on using lighter-skinned women to market their products. And the images created by the advertising industry in Nigeria often do not represent the audience they are trying to communicate with. This thinking even extends to children’s products, with mostly light-skinned babies dominating diaper adverts. Many professional and educated Nigerians also follow the whole ski bleaching trend. As a result, some opt for more discreet skin lightening products in the form of pills, chemical peels, and intravenous treatments offered by expensive dermatologists and high-end beauty spas. One thing we cannot deny is that skin lightening has impacted Africans’ individual and collective beauty standards; lighter skin is often perceived as a marker of superior beauty and economic status.
The dangers of skin lightening can be serious, ranging from chemical burns to skin cancer to kidney damages. When and my little cousins and I were younger one of my aunts we cruelly nicknamed “crocodile skin” because of the scales that had formed around her face and neck. There are thousands of horror stories of people whose wounds would not heal after an injury due to the skin’s thinness from harsh chemicals. These stories make you think about the drastic measures many women are willing to take to attain their idea of “beautiful” skin.
A few African countries, like Kenya and Ghana, have attempted a crackdown on the importation and sale of certain skin lightening products, especially those containing chemicals like hydroquinone and mercury. Rwanda enforced a nationwide ban on skin bleaching products, leading to authorities remove creams and soaps from shelves across the country. Most of the bans aren’t enforced effectively. In 2017, Ghana introduced a ban on the importation and sale of products containing the lightening agent hydroquinone. “But they are not going around Accra walking into shops, picking them off the shelves,” says Nana Agyemang-Asante, a Ghanaian journalist. “I know a shop where I buy my lotions from and I still see these products. Like everything else in my country, on paper, there is a ban but people who know where to get it will get it.” Ineffective bans could also create an underground market with unregulated products that could be far more dangerous. Nigerian doctor Ola Brown argues that banning skin lightening products do not work as long as lighter skin is still associated with beauty and success. For me personally, banning these bleaching products may not stop their use completely, but it will hopefully inspire conversations that not only inform people about the dangers of skin lightening but that also encourage people to talk about the psychological toll of colorism.
In conclusion, recent shifts in how we see beauty such as the body positivity and natural hair movements as well as dark-skinned, Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o becoming an ambassador for French luxury cosmetics house Lancôme, are contributing to our gradual redefining of beauty. My hope is that one day in the near future, no woman in Nigeria will feel she has to lighten her skin to feel beautiful or improve her odds of success in life.
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