A multibillion-dollar industry of skin-whitening products dominates the West African beauty market. Some estimates putting the number of women in West Africa using lightening cream at 70 percent in some places.
Women are now being told that it is wrong, and even illegal, to bleach their skin. Officials say they are worried there could be a sharp uptick in skin cancer because these products attack the skin’s natural protective melanin. When you bleach, it takes off the outer layers of your skin and this part of the world, the sun is always on. So there’s more skin cancer.
At the same time, they are flooded with messages — and not even subliminal ones — that tell them that white is beautiful.
Ghana’s Food and Drug Authority began a ban on certain skin-whitening products that include hydroquinone, a topical ingredient that disrupts the synthesis and production of the melanin that can protect skin in the intense West African sunshine. But the ban in Ghana hasn’t extended to removing the countless billboard advertisements on how to get “perfect white” skin. Nor have the creams and lotions disappeared from stores. In Accra’s Makola Market, endless shops and stalls had walls filled with potions dedicated to the lightening of skin. The Ghanaian government’s chief officer in charge of putting the ban in place, during an interview at his office, expressed relief that his 3-year-old daughter’s skin is not as dark as his own. “Luckily,” said Emmanuel Nkrumah, “she’s lighter than me.” They are banning the products that give women lighter skin (although no one believes the ban will work) without banning the social messaging that tells women they should have lighter skin.
The “why” goes back centuries, and says much about the searing effects of colonization that lingers today. When the Europeans colonized Africa, they brought with them centuries of belief that they were racially superior, and established a class structure that exists today, 50 years after African countries regained their independence. In many West African countries, at the top of that class structure, sit white expats, whether they are European diplomats in affluent neighborhoods, the United States Embassy staff members in their walled compounds or Lebanese merchants in electronic shops. Next in the hierarchy are the mixed-race people. The European colonists who came to Africa mated with Africans and produced mixed-race offspring, who were then deemed to be of a superior class to the full-blooded Africans. South Africa’s apartheid system went so far as to legally enshrine mixed-race people, called “coloureds.”
In many African countries, the word “mulatto” does not have the negative connotation that it has in the United States. The view that the lighter your skin, the “better” you are did not leave the continent with the Europeans, and eventually, science caught up, as skin-lightening products became available throughout the continent. “Anyone in this country could see that the mulattos were given precedence everywhere,” explained Dr. Edmund Nminyem Delle, a dermatologist who for three decades has campaigned against skin bleaching.
“It breaks my heart,” said Ama K. Abebrese, an actress. “There’s not a day I don’t drive into town and see a billboard that tells me I need perfect white skin. We are here in an African country, and it’s like someone just hit you in your gut.”
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