India.Arie has been hailed by fans and critics alike for her inspiring lyrics encouraging us to love ourselves the way we are regardless of how we were created. Very few people who heard the song “Video” heeded her advice, but we all agreed that she deserved those Grammys she was robbed of in 2001 as she was hailed as a breath of fresh air in an industry over-saturated with overtly sexual performers like L’il Kim and Foxy Brown. She was comfortable in her own skin which was more espresso than latte, and proudly flaunted her dreads which made her stand out among her weaved-up peers. Like Sinead O’Connor and Annie Lennox before her, she was determined to ensure that her talent rather than her appearance was what made her the woman she wanted to be. In 2006, Ms. Arie released the song “I Am Not My Hair”, but judging by the image on the subsequent album Cocoa Butter, one can be fooled into believing that there would be no sequel titled “I Am Not My Skin”. She has since denied that she bleaches, and while I believe she is telling the truth (I often appear much lighter in passport photographs due to those bright lights), I am disappointed that she refused to allow her dark beauty to shine on the cover — surely she had seen the picture before it was approved?
In the eighties, Nigerian radio constantly aired the jingle “Black is Beautiful”. Originally a slogan for the Guinness campaign, it would soon be associated with ebony pride, and in general black power. However, while most people claimed to be black and proud (“Black” as in dark-skinned African), there was still the secret desire to be shades lighter. For years Miss Nigeria organisers were criticised for crowning ‘yellow’ girls until Stella Okoye won the title in 1987, yet it still caused controversy. Future MBGN winner and fellow Naija-Brit Omasan Buwa, who also competed that year confirmed in an interview with The Punch that the audience felt she was too dark, which begs the question — why are Nigerians never satisfied? Unfortunately, their stupidity rubbed off me in a bad way, and soon after I began to wish I was lighter. During my first year at boarding school, I stole some of my father’s bleach — the thick type used for sanitation purposes — and proceeded to use it on my face without realising it was toxic, but as a twelve-year-old schoolgirl I was unable to afford hydroquinone-based lotions and potions. Fortunately my folly was short-lived, and I soon began to appreciate my God-given colour. This was me, and there was nothing I could do about it. Even when a girl at boarding school began to appear orangey by the minute, it was clear what she was spending her pocket money on. Although I hardly knew her, I pleaded with her to stop ruining her skin, which wasn’t even dark at all; my warning fell on deaf ears.
The World Health Organisation has confirmed that 77% of Nigerians bleach on a regular basis, but their vanity comes at a price — skin rash, swelling, seizure, numbness, pain tremors, memory loss and cancer. In more severe cases, the adverse effects of mercury in most bleaching products include kidney damage, reduction in the skin resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression, psychosis and peripheral neuropathy. Despite these effects, there are still millions of people determined to do something about it, whatever the cost, and whatever the age. Believe it or not, some Nigerian mothers have been known to bathe babies as young as three months old with skin lightning soaps such as Tura, while others opt for the creams. I knew a woman in Lagos who bleached her baby; here in Britain, this would be a punishable crime. I feel sorry for those poor little mites as there is a possibility they will grow up to become vain, shallow, and selfish…if they survive skin-damage. Shouldn’t these mother encourage their offspring to love themselves the way they are? I guess the term “…a face only a mother could love” is no more than a myth given the circumstances. Those women don’t even deserve that title — their babies would be better off adopted.
Even in today’s world, light skin is often associated with success, particularly in the entertainment business. In the early days of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé constantly stood out with her caramel skin which contrasted with her colleague’s chocolaty tones, and was thus thrust into the spotlight as the lead singer. Following her dismissal from the group, former member Farrah Franklin complained in interviews that the band’s management forced her to use sunbeds to obtain a dark hue, ensuring Beyoncé was the only visible singer. Indeed, Beyoncé continues to sell millions of records worldwide and has been hailed as a style icon — an honour which has earned her numerous deals with Pepsi and L’Oreal, but this is apparently insufficient. Despite pledging she would not make any radical changes to her appearance during her tenure as a spokesperson for the latter brand, eyebrows were raised in the African-American community when she appeared in a commercial with blonde hair and even lighter skin, and was attacked for not truly representing black women. Former Destiny’s Child bandmate, the equally talented but noticeably darker Kelly Rowland, has not been as successful as Beyoncé due to dwindling sales, and in 2013 she stated that accepting her chocolaty tone was tough. Should future prosperity be determined by our colour? Contrary to popular belief, dark-skinned film roles are in abundant supply (Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t have the conventional hue of a regular black movie star, and has won an Oscar), but we fail to accept them. Even rap artists who often boast about black pride are guilty of the same offence. Watch their videos, and you’ll find that 90% of the ‘hip-hop honeys’ are either light-skinned black women or Hispanic.
To all those women who are thinking of reaching for that jar of hydroquinone: DON’T DO IT. Sod the plastic surgeon, in life you only get one look, and even if you are successful in altering it, it will have an after effect someday. You truly are beautiful. By all means maintain yourself, but most importantly, love yourself. Nurture your brain — it’s all you’ll have left when your looks eventually fade.
- Will we ever move beyond the notion that lighter skin is better? | Teresa Wiltz (theguardian.com)
- Startling Number of Nigerian Women Use Harmful Skin Bleaching Products (theblaze.com)
- Skin Care with Skin Bleaching (aboutskinhealth.wordpress.com)
- Skin bleaching (postzambia.com)
- 15 Black Celebs Who Allegedly Whiten their Skin (atlantablackstar.com)