Black is beautiful.
Not everyone agrees to this. In fact most people wouldn’t. They’d rather believe the alternative that black is ugly, intolerable and nothing to be associated with. Tonto Dike, popular Nollywood actress asserted in an interview: “If you do not like your skin colour, you can change it.” She isn’t alone on this one. She is one out of the millions of Nigerian women that believe that bleaching their skin, or toning as they prefer to call it these days, is gege (the cool thing).
According to a now prevalent report by the World Health Organization, 77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products, the world’s highest percentage. That compares with 59 percent in Togo, and 27 percent in Senegal. This has earned Nigeria the informal title of the world’s capital of skin bleaching. Iconic Afro Beat musician, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Abami Eda as he is fondly called, made a song about the behaviour. He called the skin tone ‘yellow fever’ to label it its horridness. 8 in 10 Nigerian women are guilty of bleaching, despite Fela’s many warnings about skin bleaching. Everyone knows at least one person that is a user of skin lightening products. International news platform, Al Jazeera, gave a ranking putting Nigeria as the country most affected by the whitening obsession globally. It will however be short-sighted to point accusing fingers alone at women as the only indulgers of bleaching. Men too are found guilty of wanting to become ‘fine yellow pawpaw’. In terms of population demographics in age, Skin bleaching was also reported by a NOI poll as being mostly predominant amongst Nigerians within the age groups of 18–25 years (48 per cent) and 26-40 years (43 per cent). Generally speaking as rightly pointed out by the NOI Polls, “People of all ages, races, complexions, and social class participate in this global practice regardless of gender or level of education”.
Many practitioners of skin bleaching are not oblivious to the many dangers that come with skin bleaching. Just as addicts of anti-health behaviours such as smoking and drinking are well aware of the challenges these drugs have on their body systems in the long run, skin bleachers also still go on ahead to attain a “white skin”. Skin bleaching comes with hazardous health consequences. The dangers associated with the use of toxic compounds for skin bleaching include blood cancers such as leukaemia and cancers of the liver and kidneys as well as severe skin conditions. Hardcore bleachers use illegal ointments containing toxins like mercury, a metal that blocks production of melanin, which gives the skin its colour, but can also be toxic. Some studies have shown that most bleaching creams contain cancer-inducing substances like hydroquinone which could potentially react with ultra-violet radiation from the sun, greatly increasing the risk of skin cancer, aging rate and other side effects like renal failure, dermatitis, cataracts, blood poisoning, swelling of the skin and possible birth defects. The substance is a melanin inhibitor and therefore makes black pigmentation less visible, a result that is usually reversed after stepping out in the sun in tropical countries, like Nigeria. The sun causes the skin to stink and also precipitates black patches all over, so victims are forced to use heavy makeup.
With all these dangers and admonitions from health practitioners, users of skin lighteners still carry on. What then is the source of their motivation? One reason is xenocentrism, which is a preference of foreign images and products to local counterparts. Skin bleachers have the opinion that being of a lighter skin tone which is a natural phenomenon among the Caucasians of the western society is more preferable to the prevalent melanic skin tone of the Negroids. In many parts of Africa, lighter-skinned women are considered more beautiful and are believed to be more successful and likely to find marriage. Colonial mentality, external pressure and low self-esteem are to blame, posits Yaba Blay, a professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University. Negroids see black skin as a pathological phenomenon that needs purification to move up socially. Upward social movement can be achieved by marrying light-skinned partners or by skin bleaching. The societal concept of skin colour is probably based on the presumption that the fairer you are, the more beautiful or handsome you. Perhaps the lighter your skin colour is, the more acceptable or superior you are as a human being. According to Akinsolape Olowu, a professor of Psychology, individuals engage in skin bleaching for a myriad of reasons to include abnormal body perception, quest for beauty, inferiority complex, skin colour misconceptions, colonialism, ignorance about chemical structure of skin, and determinants of skin colour.
Just as the ancient Israelites were once admonished by their Deliverer to choose life over death, it still rings true in the context of this issue. As offensive as it may sound, skin bleachers may be suffering from a psychological problem called body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). They may then need to seek the help of a professional to deal with it. Taking a personal pride in the African heritage-most things about it- will go a long way in instilling the love for one’s identity physically. Imagine what Lupita N’yongo of the 12 years a slave fame would look like if went on to bleach her skin. African black skin is beautiful and whether you take it or leave it, it’s the reality.
© Tobi Gbemisola
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