Making our own choices is one of the rights that come with attaining the legal age –be it 21 or 18. These choices could include the standards that we want to set for our own lives in various things including beauty, the kind of friends we want to keep and what we want to smoke or drink and so on. So what is it about skin lightening as a choice that people make that arouses a lot of furor? Why must the color one chooses to wear their skin in become anyone’s concern? Ivory Coast, South Africa and Senegal have even placed a ban on skin lightening creams over health issues. But alcohol and cigarettes have known health complications on the human body but they have not been banned yet and neither do they get to people’s nerves so deeply, so what really in this fuss about skin-lightening?
At a local cosmetics shop close to where I live, the attendant once told me during a chat that the skin lightening creams are one of the first-moving commodities. So what is it about skin lightening that is making the sub-culture grow so first? This piece will address itself to this question.
1.) The idea that lighter skin is more attractive to men
I am a girl for whom beauty has never been a big deal… it is not as if I thought about it and then decided that I was comfortable with my skin tone. I simply never thought about beauty. In school, you only struck me as competition if you had better brains than I did, were more intelligent than I was, answered or asked better questions than I did. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I watched Ng’endo Mukii’s 2012 film: Yellow Fever which is available on Vimeo by the way. YELLOW FEVER tackles the problem of skin bleaching that has continued to rise and rise among African and Asian women. Nigeria has the world’s highest number of women with bleached skin at 77% of women in Nigeria having bleached skin according to World Health Organisation. The film handles the subject of bleaching from the point of view of what influences make us long for “whiteness” from the eyes of a young girl who is just waking up to the ideas of beauty.
It was through that film that I realised some people with dark skin felt that their world would spin better with lighter skin tones. Well, it could be that I live under a rock then again because beauty has simply never been at the centre of my life. But I learnt from that film that what is sold to us as beautiful is that beauty which, as much as possible, resembles the white man’s.
But is white really better? Is it true that it is easier to get a boyfriend if you are lighter skinned than if you are darker skinned? At the risk of sounding controversial, I think that as a woman, it is not possible to attract all the men on earth simply because you are light-skinned (sorry, beautiful), you only attract the men who like your kind of complexion plus other things people look at when they are trying to find a mate. Similarly, there is a man who cannot stand light skinned women and if you are dark, he will love you and marry you exactly as you are – without having to twist yourself into shapes that are exhausting. Why is there so much competition to attract men, by the way?
2.) Low self esteem
I know I started by talking about choices but sometimes the triggers for the choices that we make should be subjected to our very scrutiny. South African musician Nomasonto Mnizi speaking to the BBC admits to having bleached her skin and despite a lot of criticism from all over, she stands her ground that being a shade lighter has made her more confident.
But what if we question the very premise of the construct of lighter skin as increasing a person’s confidence? When did color begin to represent true beauty and hence bring confidence? What is it about dark skin that simply having it makes one have low self-esteem? Is it that there are deeper psychological problems that are ignored in the search for a quick fix? Siji Jabbar writing for This is Africa argues that one of the problems of skin bleaching is that it also borders on an identity crisis and the desire to be as close to white (literary) as possible. Subconsciously, people associate dark skin with Africanness so that the darker one is, the more African they are and the lighter the skin one has, the closer they are to being whites, which is the aspiration.
3.) The idea of beauty as packaged by mainstream media
As you may have noted, I understand beauty intellectually, I do not see it as an emotional idea or something that actually concerns me. I mean, it has never occurred to me that I could have a better life if my skin tone was lighter or that I would have a better job or boyfriends flocking around me if I rubbed a skin-whitening cream on my body. I am therefore struggling to understand some of the findings of my research.
Apparently, there is that image that the media tends to portray; light-skinned, small-framed, sometimes lean women to appear on billboards that advertise beauty products (the Nivea ad has a dark skinned woman by the way, even the Radiant hair oil ad, you can check them out if you want to confirm that you can be on TV even with your dark skin). Could this be one of the ideas that are unconsciously sinking into the minds of young women in Africa and Asia (continents with the highest rates of skin bleaching)? Siji Jabbar further argues that there is a western consumer culture that has been sold to Africans through the global media that has slowly but surely ingrained a tendency for Africans to hate themselves as they are since they consider themselves inferior because of their hair, their way of speaking, the way that their skin tone occurs naturally and so on. The media in Kenya has been pointed at as one of the reasons many women get the desire to bleach and look lighter (which in this sense means looking better) because it presents a one-sided view about beauty.
4.) (Mis)conceptions about beauty
Recently during the International Women’s Day, Miss World Nyamira County and Miss World Siaya County visited the Lang’ata Womens prison and posed for a photo with two inmates who had lighter skin which automatically translated to beauty in the eyes of most Kenyans as their reactions on social media illustrated. While I do not set standards and can therefore not accurately tell you who is beautiful and who is not, the fact that most Kenyans equate lighter skin tones to beauty cannot be brushed aside so easily. Could this societal pressure be one of the reasons that women are increasingly feeling pressured to have lighter skin tones? A Nigerian Woman speaking to Al Jazeera says that the reason why she uses skin lightening creams is to make her feel beautiful.
While I believe in the ability of women to make their own decisions concerning what they think is best for themselves, don’t we miss the point altogether if we do not critically arrive at these choices?