Some of us enter this realm with honest expectations Ã¢â‚¬â€œ get rid of acne and pimples, others for the obvious desire for the elusive Ã¢â‚¬Å“glowing, fair, soft, young, clear, radiantÃ¢â‚¬Â skin. Muza Gondwe explores the thorny issue of skin bleaching.
The preference for light skinned women has remained prevalent over time in all cultures: Asian, European, African, Caribbean and American, however, they are exceptions like the Maasai in Kenya who associate light complexions with being cursed or witchcraft.
In Europe, during the Industrial Revolution, light skin was associated with high social status as those with tanned skin were the poorer classes who worked outdoors. Colonisation and racism perpetrated the idea that light skin slaves were more beautiful, smarter and cooperative and they often got jobs working in the house whereas their darker relatives slaved in the fields. Lighter skin amongst blacks still retains its elevated status to the point that studies have associated blackness with low self- esteem.
So, in a quest to marry men of a high social standing, beauty, confidence and self-esteem, women are supporting a multibillion dollar skin lightening industry. In 2015, the skin lightening industry will be worth 10 billion dollars.
The cost of products on the market range from 50 cents (K82) to $150 (K24 750) making it accessible to almost everyone. Studies show disturbing results of the prevalence of skin lightening in Africa, in Bamako-Mali there is 25% prevalence, in Dakar- Senegal 52% prevalence, in Pretoria-South Africa 35%, 60% in Zambia, while Lagos-Nigeria hits an alarming 77%!
Bleaching involves removing the melanin pigment of the skin. Melanin absorbs ultraviolet light, thus protecting humans from harmful UV radiation. Using chemicals to lessen the concentration of melanin is one of the most common forms of potentially harmful body modification practices in the world.
Active agents in skin bleaching products include hydroquinone, steroids (of which there are many types, with different potencies), mercury, lemon, citric acid and even cement water. I know of a woman who would soak her feet in the bleach Jik to overcome her Ã¢â‚¬ËœFanta face, Coca Cola bodyÃ¢â‚¬Â!
In East Africa, mkorongo is potent mix of Jik, talcum powder, hair relaxer, mashed raw potatoes (for the starch) and battery acid. This is mixed with over the counter products like Clear Tone or Ambi, which women then smear all over their naked bodies.
The nasty effects
Some are able to achieve a fairly even skin tone, but a majority end up looking raw, speckled and red-faced. Prolonged use of skin lightening products and the concomitant decrease in concentration of melanin increase risks of skin cancer. Skin bleaching also encourages premature aging, irritates the skin, and causes other complications like eczema.
Misuse Ã‚Â of Hyrodquinone (found in products like Body Clear, Fair White, Peau Claire)Ã‚Â paradoxicallyÃ‚Â leads to blue-black darkening of the skin called ochronosis.
Long-term uncontrolled use of products which have steroids can lead to increased risk of skin infections, fungal infections, scabies, hypertension, elevated blood sugar, skin thinning, poor wound healing, acne and permanent stretch marks!
Topical use of mercury can lead to mercury poisoning. In most cases if not discontinued, it leads to kidney damage and psychiatric problems.
There are a lot of counterfeit skin lightening products on the market that will cause harmful, permanent damage to the skin. These products are often mislabelled or have the toxic products omitted.
In Europe, the tables are turning with tanned skin becoming more popular as it is associated with a life of wealth and leisure. Tan, capucchino, caramel or mocha are still several flavours away from dark chocolate but hopefully dark skinned models like Alek Wek will challenge these stereotypes.
We, black women, modify our physical experiences in many ways: from hair straightening, hair removal, hair dye and make up. So does the argument then hold that sporting a perm, putting a weave in your hair and skin bleaching are all equally acceptable?