Don’t you want to be fair-skinned like Beyoncé?
I was at an African beauty store in Paris, France and the shopkeeper was trying to convince me to buy a skin-lightening cream.
“I’m fine thanks, I don’t bleach my skin”, I responded.
“Well you should, it would make you look fine”, the Senegalese shopkeeper responded, a wide toothy grin on her face.
I shook my head and continued browsing the haircare products in front of me. The shopkeeper turned to attend to an incoming customer, who had an unusual orange-pink complexion. It didn’t look natural.
I overheard them talking about their beauty routine. They both bleached their skin and were looking to procure glutathione lightening intravenous injections from South Korea.
“It’s irreversible, once you get one of those injections, you get whiter. You can go in the sun and you won’t get dark ever again”, the shopkeeper said enthusiastically.
“Oh, that sounds like the dream. Imagine looking like Beyoncé, Rihanna, or the Duchess of Sussex! Oh, if only I can get a few of those injections. My husband likes me fair, I can’t afford to be a darkie if I want to keep him,” the customer responded.
I listened to the conversation, not really surprised by what I had heard. Colorism, which is a belief between certain black and brown people that the lighter you are the more superior, beautiful or successful you are, teaches black and brown people to hate their melanin and encourages them to eliminate and hide it as much as possible. These are not the people that will tell you that black is beautiful.
Like in most African beauty stores I had ever entered, over 40 percent of products in the store were skin-lightening creams. Some contained known carcinogens and yet they were the top sellers in these stores. On one particular occasion, I even heard a young mother asking for a bleaching agent to lighten her six-month-old baby. I was shocked.
As per the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology
: “Skin bleaching became a popular cosmetic practice in many African countries in the 1950s (Sagoe et al., 2019
). Up to 75% of women in Nigeria (Dadzie and Petit, 2009
, Dlova et al., 2015
), 60% in Senegal (Blay, 2011
), 50% in Mali (Baxter, 2000
), and 30% in Ghana are estimated to use bleaching creams regularly, with similar rates in other African countries (Lartey et al., 2017
, Mckinley, 2001
). Throughout the continent, both men and women are frequently targeted with marketing campaigns showing public figures who bleach their skin (Owusu-Agyei et al., 2020
). Consequently, individuals claim that lighter skin makes them attractive and increases their career opportunities (Dlova et al., 2015
, Yusuf et al., 2019
This obsession for lighter skin is concerning, and as a sociologist, what intrigues me most, is what lies behind it. Why do some black and brown people hate their skin color so much? Skin lightening cuts across all strata of society — it’s not just the poor and uneducated bleaching their skin, rich and highly educated people do it too. I have often asked myself what can push huge swathes of people to engage in a dangerous activity that can curtail their lives?
It seems that people that engage in this see blackness as ugly or undesirable. They have internalized a white supremacist ideology that blackness isn’t beautiful, and hence they try to lighten their blackness to get rid of it. You see, when Mum and Dad bleach themselves and their kids, this perpetuates a dysfunctional vicious cycle and hatred of blackness.
Recently, actresses like Viola Davies
and Lupita Nyong’o
have come out to describe how they were discriminated against because of their darker hues. It must not have been easy to get to the top with racism and colorism stacked against them. It’s encouraging to see that despite these obstacles, these actresses have made it. It goes to show that society is changing and becoming more accepting of blackness, but there is still much work to be done.
As per the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology: “South Africa became the first country in the world to ban skin bleaching products and was recently joined by Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana (Thomas, 2012
). Despite these restrictions, patients are still able to obtain products from street vendors and cosmetic shops, avoiding bans or regulatory constraints (Dadzie and Petit, 2009
, Dlova et al., 2015
It is clear that colorism — an intimate bedfellow of racism, is deeply rooted within black and brown communities, and the only way to get rid of it is through education. Black and brown people cannot continue to define their beauty and their worth against whiteness.
Of course, the media also has a role to play in portraying blackness in a positive light. Centuries of white supremacy have opposed white and black in a binary dynamic whereby white is seen as virtuous, pure, and beautiful, and black is seen as the opposite. This type of bias needs to stop because the reality is simple: we are all beautiful regardless of our different hues.
Thanks for reading my perspective.