Skin Bleaching among African Women

Yesterday, I read an article that was posted on an online publication that I follow on Twitter. The more I read, the more I begun to shake my head profusely. Madame Noire (a Black women‘s lifestyle online publication dedicated to the latest in black hair care, relationship advice, fashion trends, black entertainment news and parenting tips) posted an article titled:


The article addressed skin bleaching among Kenyan women and the effects it had on their community or should I say society.

Let me provide you a little background on skin bleaching if you are not familiar with the concept. Skin Bleaching refers to the practice of using chemical substances in an attempt to lighten skin tone or provide an even skin complexion by lessening the concentration of melanin. Several chemicals have been shown to be effective in skin whitening, while some have proved to be toxic or have questionable safety profiles, adding to the controversy surrounding their use and impacts on certain ethnic groups.

Skin Bleaching among African women has been a practice for quite a long time but is also not a new trend within black Western women. In Madame Noire’s article the blogger Brande Victorian details model Ajuma Nasenyana’s frustration with the practice. The article was good overall however, I had one small problem with it. The model states:

Speaking on a Swedish cosmetics firm that recently entered the Kenyan market, she added:

“Their leaflets are all about skin-lightening, and they seem to be doing good business in Kenya. It just shocks me. It’s not okay for a Caucasian to tell us to lighten our skin.

The issue is not white people wanting us to lighten our skin or wanting us to look white. There’s no way possible to look white. You can have very fair skin…but your facial features will still resemble a black woman. There are only a handful of biracial/multiracial women who could actually pass for being Caucasian. The majority still have very strong African features. The model also goes on to say that when readers look at magazines, all they see are white models. Granted, this has been the norm for a very long time. But I doubt a mentally sane black woman is looking at a white model and thinking: “oh, I want to look like that.” Even Michael Jackson (RIP) with his numerous surgeries and enhancements looked like a biracial man at the most and would have never been mistaken for being Caucasian.

The real culprit and I’ve always preached this, are the black fashion and beauty magazines that portray a group of black women and men who do not look like their African brothers and sisters. Growing up (I was born and raised in what I like to describe as ‘white Europe’ but I’m from Nigeria), whenever I flipped through the pages of Ebony or Essence I always felt inferior and wondered why black Americans were so good looking while we Africans were not. A typical African has very dark skin, in addition, has a rounded face with a larger percentage of them having high cheekbones, extra full lips and very kinky hair.

It took me over 7 years to get my hair to straighten with a relaxer. I remember using the “Extra Strong” formula and would let it sit for over an hour and after washing the lye out, would still end up with very kinky hair. Not only that, it was never long like the hair I would see on women in Ebony or Essence. You have to understand as an African woman who would visit Nigeria once a year growing up, I felt the struggle we as Africans went through. We were not looking at posters/magazines for white models, we were looking at posters and magazines to see black models. You have to understand that Ebony and Essence is in high circulation in Africa and I’m sure the Caribbeans, South America and other areas with a high population of African descents are not left out. How these magazines ended up there…I cannot say but there is probably not one single middle class African household that does not know of both magazines or owned several copies.

The people we saw in those magazines had flawless skin, had beautiful facial features (probably from being mixed race during the slavery era) and had long beautiful hair that was thick but luscious. Their makeup was always flawless and their skin tone, although it varied in shade, was always so beautiful. Not once, did I see a dark skin model in any of those magazines.  Not once, did I see a model with kinky hair. Not once did I see a model with extra full lips or an extra broad nose. And if I didn’t see those things, can you imagine what my African sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles were seeing? They were seeing the exact same thing I saw.

If anyone should be held responsible for Africans wanting to lighten their skin and change their facial features, it’s Black America. You have to understand that in Africa during the colonial rule, we didn’t have the concept of light skinned slaves working in the house while the darker skin slaves worked in the field. That sort of segregation only happened in America. For Africans, we were identified as black and our slave masters didn’t care if one of us was of a lighter shade than the other.

In today’s age it wouldn’t matter to a racist if you were a light skinned black or a dark skinned black. As far as a racist’s eye sees, s/he sees us all as black – the shade and race they hate. So to say Caucasians are the reason African women want to lighten their skin is not an accurate allegation. Granted, Chinese and/or European manufacturers are capitalizing on the rampant urge that African women have to want to lighten their skin by making skin lightening products available…but we still cannot hold them accountable for being the real culprit.

I only started seeing African models with typical African features in magazines in recent times. I believe the first model I could identify was Alek Wek. Prior to Alek Wek, we Africans didn’t have anyone to identify with in mainstream fashion and beauty. But even with the emerge of such models, there is still an inferiority complex amongst Africans. How many times do you actually see Alek’s face on the cover of a magazine? How many times do you see a face similar to Alek in mainstream African American movies? How many times do you see such features on the Red Carpet?

Obviously, every adult is responsible for their own action, but we can’t deny that what we see in the media and its outlet have a huge influence and impact on how we see ourselves. Society has a strong grip on us. It takes a very strong individual to not want to conform to what society deems as “beautiful”. I commend Ajuma Nasenyana for speaking up. However, I do not believe that makeup is what will change the perception of beauty in Africa. It going to take a lot more than that to change the perception women have of themselves.

I hope this article sheds more light on the issue.


2 thoughts on “Skin Bleaching among African Women

  1. This article is so great and informative. I’m sure everyone can relate or at least it will serve as an eye-opener.

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