The White Ones: Nigeria’s skin-bleaching Trend

`I do not hate you, for your faces are beautiful, too. I do not hate you, Your faces are whirling lights of loveliness and splendor, too. Yet, why do you torture me, O, white strong ones, Why do you torture me?’

The excerpt above is from Langston Hughes’ short poem, `The White Ones’.

In Nigeria, there is a growing trend among women and men to change their skin color.

Particularly of interest is the new found term ‘organic skin care’, ‘skin toning’, which many believe is another word to tone down the derogatory term, bleaching.

According to the World Health Organisation, 77 per cent of women in Nigeria use skin lightening products, the world’s highest percentage.

A walk into many organic stores in the nation’s capital leaves many to wonder how Nigerian women caught the bug to change their skin colors.

Mariam Akande, a 32-year old graduate of political science, now self-employed, owns of those stores in the city.

According to her, sales has tripled since she started the business, with customers nationwide.

“When I started in 2017, I had few customers, I got trained in Lagos, a skin therapist put me through the rudiments to making them.

“I can’t complain at all, business is thriving, we get orders everywhere, I have an online marketing team who makes sure online customers get their orders timely”.

For Akande, raw materials were sourced locally and readily available around her, with routine trainings for intended skin care enthusiasts.

In Nigeria, Beauty standards, often promoted by the media and advertising companies, have reinforced the bias that lighter skin tone is more desirable, forcing men and women of colour to bleach.

Skin-bleaching products are reported to contain ingredients that prevent the production of Melanin, the body chemical that darkens skin.

One of such ingredient is hydroquinone, a depigmenting agent used to lighten the skin. 

Even though the practice has been associated with a number of adverse health effects including skin cancer, kidney, liver or nerve damage, there appears to be no end in sight.

Pills and injectables, containing bleaching ingredients like glutathione, have now become the new frontiers for those seeking a lighter complexion.

Such Intravenous infusions, mostly patronized by the affluent is readily available in many skin clinics.

According to Mr Iruedo Osaruwense, Skin bleaching or skin lightening in Nigeria may possibly be likened to male preference, with many men preferring light skinned girls.

“There are terms used to describe light skinned girls here in Nigeria. “oyinbo pepper”, yellow pawpaw and many more. How many terms do we have for dark skinned women?

“Even if those terms exist, it can be degrading. I will always remember one, “blacky shadow”, that’s because I was called that.

“So in the scale of attraction, light skinned girls rank higher. Nigerian musicians have made it easy for women to understand light skinned women are preferred.

“Omo Pupa” by Victor Olaiya is one example. Should we leave the music directors out? No. They prefer to use fair skin vixens in their videos because they think they appear better on High Definition.

“What of the banks? The new generation banks will choose a light skinned girl over a darker one’’.

He said this disparity in taste, was the reason skin bleaching was big business in Nigeria, adding that although some indulge in the practice believe that they were only taking care of the skin `to make it to glow’.

A civil servant, Mr Michael Onunkwo, says the trend may be fueled with the perception of beauty as being light skinned.

To him, the advent of social media may be partly blamed for the rise and acceptance of the new trend.

He noted that in many parts of Africa and in Nigeria, light-skinned women were considered more beautiful and therefore more likely to succeed in some fields, such as in the modeling and movie industries.

“A lot of these people who are addicted to bleaching suffer from severe stretch marks, poor wound healing, abnormal odour, excessive sweating and the likes, some even age faster unknowingly’’.

A dermatologist, with a private Hospital in Abuja, Dr Racheal Inuwa says what was more worrisome is the trend for women to change the skin colors of themselves and their babies.

According to Inuwa, it is important for regulatory agencies to regulate importation of unregistered skin care products into the country.

Corroborating further, she said, “a lot of people still do not know the chemical composition in these creams and oils they use, some may develop life threatening diseases unknowingly.

“Some of them contain hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury as key ingredients’’.

The dermatologist said there was need to increase conversations around skin color and beauty, saying that the fashion and beauty world and the media ought to go beyond the colorism.

In the words of Senior Registrar in Dermatology at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, Dr Folakemi Cole-Adiefe, “our dark skin is a natural adaptation for sun protection.

“People who are lighter don’t have as much melanin which is the pigment in the skin that helps to absorb harmful sun rays to prevent it from penetrating into the skin and cause damage.

“This is the reason why people who live with albinism who have no melanin, are more at risk of skin cancer and that is because they do not have the natural melanin that dark people have.

“It is also a reason why skin cancer is more common in Caucasians than blacks.”

In conclusion, experts agree that there was need for collective efforts to end the stereotype and popular assumption that a fair and lighter skin is more beautiful or appealing.

Report by Tosin Kolade, News Agency of Nigeria.

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