Beauty and The Bleach: The Skin Bleaching Epidemic in West Africa
When Blac Chyna announced that she will be going to Lagos, Nigeria to launch her new collection with Dencia’s “Whitenicious”, she sparked an outrage from Africans back home as well as in the diaspora. A Black Woman from America is launching her collection of bleaching products and has chosen an audience that is far away from her own community. While the outrage is certainly rightful and necessary, Blac Chyna is not the only one capitalizing off the Eurocentric beauty standards in Africa as a result of colonialism. She is only a small part of a larger issue. Skin Bleaching has proven to be a beast entrapping men and women in Africa in a web of lies, unrealistic desires, self-hate, health complications, and so on.
Meet the Beast
Skin Bleaching is defined as the process of using bleaching agents to lighten the skin’s pigments. This process usually involves the use of topical cream, gels, soap, other household products, and, most recently, pills. Skin bleaching products typically contain chemicals such as hydroquinone, corticosteroids, salicylic agents, sodium hypochlorite, and many other acidic agents that puts users at great risk of various health complications. Hydroquinone, the leading active ingredients in bleaching products, is commonly found in industrial chemical products and may cause exogenous ochronosis, skin burns, hyperpigmentation, cutis laxa, skin legion, and severe acne. Long-term application of another active ingredient, corticosteroids, may cause bacterial skin infection, glaucoma, cataracts, diabetes, and neurological diseases.
Although skin bleaching poses a great risk to consumers, many skin bleaching products are household names in Western Africa. According to a Times report, approximately 77% of Nigerians use skin bleaching products on a regular and 70% of West Africa regularly use bleaching products. Why is skin bleaching so popularized in our communities even with the numerous side effects and alarming diseases that accompany the process?
Skin Bleaching as a Result of Colonialism
One known method used to exert control over African countries during colonization was the establishment of White Supremacy. Our colonizers/oppressors established a racial hierarchy in which the Black race was subservient to the white race in many aspects including beauty. One of the consequences of such dehumanizing tactics was the establishment of Eurocentric beauty standards which yields the preference for lighter skin tones. This major psychosomatic effect pushes many people to alter their physical appearance to meet the Eurocentric standards of beauty.
The psychological effects of colonialism are not only to be seen from an individualistic level. Colorism has proven to be a multi-million dollars establishment in Africa. In 2015, a survey of the numerous billboards in Dakar, Senegal indicated that major companies are most likely to use light-skin people to advertise their products regardless of the product. Advertising companies are not the only one who is profiting off the effects of colonialism; Many major beauty companies such as Nivea and Dove are also profiteers of colorism. Last year, Nivea drops an ad campaign for its “Natural Fairness” body lotion marketed in Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. The Nivea Ad shows a dark skin woman applying the product that visibly lightens her skin in the ad. The Ad also uses taglines such as “visibly lightens” and “boost your confidence with Nivea”. Even companies like La Mer, Lancôme, Murad, Neutrogena, and so on have launched their skin lightening creams and marketed towards West African consumers.
Skin bleaching in Africa cannot be exclusively attributed to colonialism. Black communities all across the world have internalized racism and anti-blackness amongst our own self. With brands that promote slogans such as “Just being white, you can win”, it is no surprise that lighter skin in Africa is attributed with being richer, more beautiful, and more successful. With the growing stereotypes surrounding skin color, more women find themselves bleaching to attract spouses, obtain jobs, and to be seen as part of an elite group of fairness. In Nigeria, “yellow paw paw”, ‘”oyinbo pepper”, “fair lady”, “toyin tomato”, “fine mulatto”, and many more have become terms of endearment used by men to praise light skin women and their beauty.
What roles are we playing in the epidemic of skin bleaching as Africans? Our flawed standards of beauty have been amplified specifically through our pop culture. From only casting light skin women in music videos to actresses publicizing their skin bleaching processes and developing “skincare products”, famous icons across Africa are contributing to the problem.
In 1961, Dr. Victor Olaiya dropped his hit single “Omo Pupa” where he sings about his strong desire for a light skin lady. Freshly free from Great Britain, our grandfathers were laying down the foundation for the tiresome colorism in the industry. In 2013, a Ghanaian model claimed that she went to a casting call for Wizkid and Akon, but she, alongside other dark skin models, was sent away because they were looking for “half-caste” girls. Her claims, however, are not surprising as African musicians are known for mostly choosing light skin or racially ambiguous models as the lead in their music videos. There have also been other dark skin models who have also reported discrimination from musicians; one of them is Nigerian model, Debbie, who was turned down by Tekno as his the lead for his music video for “Your Love”.
The music industry is not the only part of pop culture that believes fairer is better. Nollywood and Ghollywood are filled with actors and actresses with dramatic before/after of skin bleaching. Actresses like Tonto Dikeh and Mercy Aigbe have openly spoken about using bleaching creams. This list of bleaching actresses is never ending: Rita Dominic, Yvonne Nelson, Tonto Dikeh, Stephanie Oke, Thelma O’Kaz, Ini Edo, Mosun Filani, Ronke Oshodi Oke, Rose Odika, Yetunde Aderibigbe, Bimbo Ogunowo, Wunmi Toriola, Biodun Okeowo, Tope Osoba, Victoria Kolawole, Joke Jigan, and many more
Musicians and actresses did not only promoted skin bleaching; they helped amplify the market. Joke Jigan, Mercy Aigbe, Iyabo Ojo, Abimbola Ogunnowo, Susan Maxwell, and Mosun Filani are all self-proclaimed cosmetologists who now sell bleaching products to thousands of Nigerians. Nigerian-Cameroonian star Dencia is well-known for skin bleaching line “Whitenicious” which features the Blac Chyna collection causing the current uproar.
Bleaching in pop culture goes beyond the music and film industry. As we advance in the social media, the rise of social media influencers has also added to the promotion of skin bleaching in Africa. Internet Celebrity, Bobrisky, also used his platform to promote and sell bleaching products with promises to keep the skin “glowing”. Radio personality, Toke Makinwa, is also widely known for her “luxury organic” skin care products (bleaching products). Make-up artists in Nigeria are also contributing to the epidemic by choosing to use lighter shades of foundation on clients to produce looks that showcase western beauty trends while suppressing many of the African features in their clients.
What’s alarming about the number of celebrities and influencers involved in the selling of skin bleaching products is the lack of uproars and protest against the majority of these people who amplified the market. There’s a Yoruba proverb that translates to “The insect that’s biting the vegetable plant is at the root of the plant.” For as long as we continue to amplify and create room for the bleaching cream market to grow and expand in West Africa, we will continue to attract unwanted guests from all over the world who are willing to sell to us. With a vast of the skin bleaching brands used coming from SouthEast Asia, it is no secret to the rest of the world that these products are very profitable in Africa.
While acknowledgment of the degree and impact of the epidemic is a step in the right direction, we still have a lot to do to really beat off the beast that has been bullying our community. We have to start moving away from the Eurocentric standards of beauty and rewriting our own standards that encompass our natural beauty and strength: Our home, our rules! our beauty, our standards! This includes staying away from asking young girls questions like “why is your skin so black” “why does your face look so rough” and so on. It is time we move away from the backward thinking of “the fairer, the better”. Fairer skin is not synonymous to being successful, elite, or superior to darker skin.
We have to start moving away from the Eurocentric standards of beauty and rewriting our own standards that encompass our natural beauty and strength: Our home, our rules! our beauty, our standards!
We also have to start educating young women and men about the repercussions of skin bleaching and the acidic agents involved. It’s time our governments take a stronger stand in prohibiting the epidemic that is slowly killing us inside and outside. Countries like Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa have taken the lead by banning dangerous percentages of hydroquinone, but many home companies are choosing to ignore the bans and guidelines. It is also important that our governments are attacking ad campaigns and commercials used to market these products to our people. If companies are insisting on profiting off the effects of our tragic past then our intervention should target how they are reaching us. Ad campaigns like the Nivea and Dove commercials should be swapped out with informational campaigns about the effects of skin bleaching.
We also need more influencers and celebrities that are publicly against skin bleaching. Over the past years, artists like Fela Kuti, Patoranking, and Olamide have made songs speaking against skin bleaching amongst black women. In a business with over 30 known celebrities selling these products, we need more than 2-3 celebrities speaking against bleaching and flawed beauty standards.
While the full solution of the epidemic of skin bleaching will not come overnight, now is the time we start implementing more than 140 characters of utter disgust and disappointment. The real truth is that the only way we can avoid people like Blac Chyna coming to our community and sell us toxicity is if we take a real stand against skin bleaching and get rid of the multi-million dollars market that we have created. Blac Chyna may or may not make it to Nigeria because of the outrage and uproar she is receiving currently, but as long as we keep the market profitable there is another stranger willing to come into our home to set rules and standards that will ensure we are never free from the beast.