Taking a stroll through your average convenience store with a black customer base will introduce you to a few products: hair food, hair extensions, various hair brushes and about 20 different types of lotion with different types of cocoa or shea butter mixed in. This is the majority of the products seen, because hair remains the major focus in the African American community when it comes to beauty, professionalism and assimilation into the majority social and economic norms. While the debate over hair and what it means and how it should be styled in America continues to this day, in other parts of the diaspora a more disturbing trend has been on the rise in recent years. The increased use of skin bleaching creams in South Africa and Nigeria in particular represent a still distressing remnant of colonial cultural oppression in many parts of Africa, and only recently are social leaders and public health offiicals beginning to take a stand.
Two recent studies by public health officials in South Africa and Nigeria reported an alarming number of women are using various bleaching creams on a regular basis to lighten their skin and appear more “attractive”. According to a recent BBC story, upwards of 77% of Nigerian women report using bleaching creams of som type to lighten their skin and perhaps up to one in three South African women use such creams as well. As is the case with any foreign reporting we can’t always determine how much women are using these creams, once a month injections, daily uses or just for blemishes are all widely different usage patterns. However the risks associated with such creams, permanent burns, skin damage and in some cases cancer have been known for years, so why the recent rise in use the use and backlash against such products.
On the one hand the increase in the purchase of skin lightening creams is a result of increased wealth and a rising middle class across many different nations in Africa. While many African nations remain in the “third world” and poor, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and several other nations have seen a rise in the middle class over the last decade due in part to increased investment from the United States and China. The rise in the number of individuals with disposable income has allowed long standing issues of self-hatred (imposed by years of racist colonialism) to manifest in cosmetic purchases. Many of the stories about the use of skin creams focus on women claiming they will be percieved as more beautiful by men and more successful at work if they are lighter skinnned. What is interesting about these justifications is that it is not clear whether or not men in various African countries truly prefer lighter skinned women (and what type of men they are) but marketing has shown that now African men are beginning to use skin bleaching creams, something heretofore considered a cosmetic purchase for women only.
At the same time this change is occuring there appears to be a backlash of sorts in various countries stemming from a mixture of “Black Pride” and a rejection of the imposition of European social norms of beauty. Last fall the Khess Petch (which means “All-White” in the local wolof language) skin bleaching cream campaign in Senegal set off a nation wide protest and discussion of beauty and skin images in the country. Within four days of the national ad campaign over 1,000 signatures of protest had been sent to the Ministry of Health to remove the ad campaign from billboards across the nation. Many of these signatures were from dermatologists who argued that above and beyond the social costs such creams were often cheaply made and dangerous for consumers.
The idea of skin self hatred is not new or unique to people of African decent but the need to resist such products is nevertheless important. As Africans gain a greater sense of economic and social agency increased self esteem and national pride in the value and significance of blackness is key. It is a struggle that was faced in the United States as well, the difference is that we simply moved our issues from skin to hair.
DR. JASON JOHNSON, Politic365 Chief Political Correspondent, is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio and author of the book Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell. You can read more at www.drjasonjohnson.com or follow him on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson.