April 18, 2023

Dying to Be White? – The Psychological and Physical Consequences of Skin Lightening

Article fact-checked and approved by Dr. Didi Emokpare
Content provided in partnership with Radiant Health Magazine

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Black is beautiful.

Time and time again this phrase has been printed on shirts, exclaimed in speeches, and incorporated in musical pieces (i.e. Black is Beautiful by Flavour). Fueled primarily by the Black Power movement, many of us casually state that “black is beautiful” with ease. Yet, many Nigerian women (77% according to the World Health Organization) continue to outwardly struggle with the phrase “MY black is beautiful,” in the form of an apparent desire for whiter and lighter skin.

In a predominantly black country, how can I say that women are struggling with colorism? The fact that the skin bleaching industry exists and thrives in Nigeria is a substantial indicator of internal insecurities becoming externalized and profited upon.

“Fanta face. Coca cola body.” We see them everywhere. The women with faces as translucent as the day and bodies as dark as the night.  Some may say it is merely a fashion statement, like trying on a new dress or a new lipstick, and who are you to tell them how to look at their daily lives? However, bleaching one’s skin cannot be likened to a simple fashion choice.

New dresses do not usually expose you to kidney damage – skin lighteners do. The skin bleaching industry remains highly unregulated, allowing companies to incorporate hazardous chemicals, such as mercury and hydroquinone, which can result in kidney damage, damage to the nervous system, fungal and bacterial infections of the skin, hypertension, diabetes, skin and liver cancers, depression, blindness, obesity, discoloration, bodily rashes, and scarring – in pregnant women, it can increase the risk of stillbirths, low birth weight, and neonatal infection. The list of side effects is seemingly endless. Many times these harmful substances are not even included on the ingredient list.

However, the negative effects transcend the purely physical. Similar to the bodily effects, skin bleaching agents run the risk of psychologically scarring and discoloring the minds of those who utilize it and the young people who witness its use.

Post-colonialism has permitted whiteness and lighter skin to possess a level of privilege in global society. We are no longer under European rule. Yet, the residue of Eurocentric beauty ideologies has proven more difficult to rid ourselves of than simply declaring our independence.  These self-destructive, unattainable beauty standards were so heavily embedded in our ancestors and as a result have been seamlessly intertwined into many of our upbringings to the point that its presence has become unconscious and unquestioned. However, ubiquitousness is not an indicator of legitimacy. We should not allow this mindset to continue to permeate into the views and self-esteem of ourselves and those that will come after us – our children and progeny.

Chasing after an illusory standard of beauty that was never meant to incorporate the wide array of blackness that exists in our world is analogous to fetching water with a straw basket – no matter how much you fill the basket, the water seeps out and the basket remains empty.  So, what can we do to change this?

It’s about education. It’s about health literacy. Is it worth bleaching your skin only to end up compromising your health AND your physical appearance – the very thing you were trying to improve? It starts small. Learn to love yourself. Teach your children to love themselves. Take a stance against skin bleaching. Fashion designer Adama Paris refuses to use models who bleach their skin. You may not have the platform Ms. Paris possesses, but it can be something small. Share this article with your friends, loved ones, colleagues. Spread the message. It is in our hands to plant the seeds of self-acceptance.

What I am suggesting is a concerted effort to love ourselves the way we are made.

White IS beautiful.

Black IS beautiful.

Beauty is such a diverse concept. Let’s not limit it to one standard.

Radiant is a bi-annual print and digital health magazine dedicated to the discerning African woman and her journey to wellness through health, beauty and culture. Available at Barnes & Noble stores and other retailers (see stockists) and online. Ships worldwide. Subscribe to our newsletter and get a free digital copy of issue No.06.

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