Posted on August 4, 2014
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As a young girl growing up in Africa, I was always aware of the trade in skin whiteners, which promised women a lighter, smoother complexion. However, I was surprised to discover the popularity of similar creams in China, where I lived for a year during my time at university.
Last month came the news that a new skin whitening cream, Whitenicious, promoted by a Cameroonian singer called Dencia, had sold out in a day. In the adverts for the cream, Dencia is shown, unusually, in a full-body shot, her skin a ghostly white pallor. The effect is enhanced by her blonde wig.
Worryingly, there are no details on the chemicals in the cream, and a number of similar products contain harmful chemicals that damage the skin. Although it claims to tackle skin problems such as hyper-pigmenation and dark spots, the photograph is unambiguous: this cream will make you white.
In so many places in the world, white skin is held up as the ideal; the paler your skin the better. According to the World Health Organisation, in Nigeria 77% of women use skin lightening products on a regular basis. In 2004, nearly 40% of women surveyed in China (Province of Taiwan and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), Malaysia, the Philippines and the Republic of Korea reported using skin lighteners. In India, 61% of the dermatological market consists of skin lightening products. Big brands such as L’Oreal and Pond’s are complicit in producing skin lightening creams and cleansers. Air-brushing in magazines is also a problem; in 2008 L’Oreal was accused of lightening singer Beyonce’s skin in an advert for one of its hair dye ranges.
There are many pressures driving women to skin-whitening creams, among them colourism: the discrimination against your own community on the basis of skin colour, (similar to shadeism). Its roots lie in racism and the historical legacy of slavery, during which lighter-skinned or mixed-race slaves were privileged over darker-skinned ones. In some countries, colonial policies and caste systems are also to blame. The problem is complex and multi-layered. In some societies, the appeal of lighter skin goes beyond aesthetics; it is seen as a route out of poverty, a passport to a higher class and better life.
Campaigns such as the Dark is Beautiful campaign in India, which ‘campaigns against the toxic belief that that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin’, are working to change the conversation around skin colour and how people, and especially women of colour, perceive themselves.
The message is vital and timeless. Women and girls need to be told that they are not defined by the colour or shade of their skin, that they are lovely just as they are, that they are ‘enough.’ Yes, dark is beautiful too.
What do you see when you look in the mirror? A work in progress! A woman learning to be braver every day.
Kiri Kankhwende is special projects and development manager at Media Diversified, a non-profit organisation that aims to tackle the lack of diversity in UK media. it provides a network for ethnic minority writers and journalists to support one another and collectively campaign on issues and topics that are underrepresented in the mainstream media, as well as helping them to get their work into national newspapers and magazines, and their voices heard in the broadcast media. Media Diversified also offers a platform for writers to publish their work, including an academic space.