I had the privilege of being back home (Kenya) this past Christmas holiday and one of the things I noticed is the amount of people (mostly women) who have bleached/lightened their skin. Based on all my recent trips back home, I can’t confidently say that the number of people who are bleaching their skin has increased, but I noticed more of it this time. It could be due to the fact that I’m more aware as this issue is being discussed more and I have watched various documentaries which explore why and how Africans and people of African descent bleach their skin. It’s also been a public health issue with countries like South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and most recently Rwanda banning harmful skin bleaching products from their markets.
However, illegal products are still sold in black markets. In Nairobi, there is a booming black market that sells creams, pills, and a new wave of injections that promise lighter skin. Most of these products contain harmful substances such as mercury and high doses of steroids which can cause skin irritation, inflammation, scarring, thinning of the skin, kidney, liver or nerve damage. Using these products while pregnant or breast feeding can also cause abnormalities in newborns. “Safer” alternatives exist but are very expensive, so many people still use the cheaper banned products.
With the new conscious trend of celebrating melanin with hashtags such as #melaninpopping, there has been increased effort to encourage dark skin people of African descent to love and embrace their skin colour. Despite that, negative conceptions about darker skin exist not only in Africa but everywhere around the world. The demand for skin lightening products is also really high in Asia and the Middle East, making it a super lucrative industry. Eurocentric standards of beauty are still largely the norm with the effects of colonialism and consequently neocolonialism lingering.
The idea that “lighter or whiter is better” is perpetuated everywhere as the world places a premium on white skin. We grew up seeing skin lightening products being advertised on bill boards and TV. We grew up not seeing representation of dark skin Africans in media. The same ideas are still reinforced with African media being largely dominated by people of lighter skin including those who have bleached their skin. Promoters of the bleaching products use undertone messages promising a better quality of life and more visibility with lighter skin. So with all these enticing promises and seeing people with lighter skin (including those who have bleached) seemingly succeed and occupy influential spaces, can we blame people, especially young girls who choose to bleach?
It seems like all public health campaigns aimed to educate people of the harms have not been effective. It’s a very deep rooted issue with internalization of inferiority and self hate. Most of this is TAUGHT by family and society from a very young age. We can judge, mock or scorn people who bleach their skin but that doesn’t serve them. Instead, compassion is key as we need to understand that these actions are birthed by inferiority complexes driven by lingering colonial mentalities and societal standards that promote these Eurocentric ideals. By acknowledging this, only then can we make the effort to decolonize our minds as a collective and teach our children to love and embrace their skin.
Title reference is from Nardo Ranks’ song – ‘Dem a bleach’ released in 1992 in response to an increasing trend of skin bleaching in Jamaica. The song is still very relevant today.