Ennie Fakoya

The Skin I Live In; Where Class and Colour meet.

The first thing I see when I type ‘skin bleaching’ into Google is a cream. On a horribly designed label is an unkempt black girl on one side and the same girl on the other side, her skin lightened by the aforementioned cream. The promotional copy uses terms like “brightening’, and ‘dark spots’, and most importantly ‘whitening’.

Nowadays, when I hear about or see stories on skin bleaching and how it’s affected people of colour, I tend to forget that I was one of the people affected by it. It’s one of many memories I’ve repressed from my childhood, but when I pull them back into my current headspace, it feels like it happened only yesterday. 

I was pretty young when I started bleaching my skin, eleven or twelve-years-old, and it was a month long affair. I knew what the cream was, and I knew what it would do to my skin everytime I scraped a dollop out of the tub and lathered it on my arms (never on my face, that would be too obvious if things went south). 

It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, either, but I was raised in a culture that used pain as a form of teaching so that wasn’t a deterrent. Sure, it irritated and I’ve only know just learnt how to fix my hyperpigmentation but beauty is supposed to hurt, right? It’s supposed to peel off the parts of me that are ugly. It was less about the process of ruining my skin, and more about that fact that I would eventually be close enough to witness to be liked.

Once I’d done it a couple times, and my skin had taken slight discolouration instead of the desired result, I cried for days. Partially because my arms was tender for about a week, but mostly because I was still dark skinned, and all I had to show for de-melanizing myself was an uneven skin tone. Eventually, I forgot about that experience, not because I started loving my skin, but because I accepted that it’s something I don’t have to change to be pretty. 

Do I think that skin bleaching is wrong? Absolutely. I think that even creating a product designed to reduce melanin production is unsafe. Even if for medical reasons, most skin bleaching products contain toxic metals like mercury. But the reality is a lot of people, mostly girls and women of colour, thought the same way I did. Their skin was the only bridge between them and achieving a the societal standard of what beauty looks like.

In the constant digital cycle of beauty management and embracing authentic faces, skin bleaching occupies the underbelly of this industry. The South African limited series on Netflix Savage Beauty, is a short but impactful dissection of skin bleaching, and the lengths people will go to hide their involvement.

Skin Bleaching is practically an industry in itself, as it’s estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2044, and in 2011, 40% of African women contributed to that. The prevalence of skin lightening in African countries is larger than you’d expect, with statistics from the National Library of Medicine stating, “77% in Nigeria to 59% in Togo, 35% in South Africa, and 25% in Mali.”

Of course, like all things pertaining to institutional power against blackness, skin bleaching is a colourism issue. It dates all the way back to the 1800s, where American women aspired to reach a higher class distinction by lightening their skin to match the ideal complexion of Europeans. The lighter you were, the more desirable.

In a paper by the American Sociological Society, it was explained that ideology of white supremacists is a belief that, “Whiteness became identified with all that is civilised, virtuous and beautiful. Blackness, in opposition, with all that is lowly, sinful and ugly.”

I believed this for most of my formative years. Not overtly, but there was a subconscious understanding that in the predominantly white areas that I lived and schooled, there was a clear distinction. Whether or not this was what those around me thought - for some, they made it quite clear - it was what I thought and that was enough. 

I was also fat most of my childhood. There were so many things I believed were wrong with me and maybe, just maybe if my skin was lighter and I starved myself occasionally it would all be worth it.

This memory is one of many, but it isn’t as though the others were different. When you try to change fundamental parts of yourself, the things you do for that cause blur together. They become globs of desperation. They fester and stink up the spaces around you because everybody knows what you tried to do. Everybody knows that you want to be different.

The importance of skin colour, I found out, trails behind you years after childhood. Everyone likes to act as though the things you do in secondary school stay there but when you’ve grown to see that for a lot of people your skin really is a problem, it no longer lives in an echo chamber. 

Despite gaining independence from their longstanding list of colonisers, India, like Africa, still works under the growing popularity - and backlash - of skin lightening cosmetics. Colourism is embedded into everyday life, from work to marriage. A study done in 2018 showed that, as expected, “fair-skinned highly attractive people received higher ratings than dark-skinned people” when it came to mothers choosing suitable marriage partners for their children.

The idea that skin shades are a sign of suitability is long standing, and for centuries, whiteness has been the paragon. 

But why is it more common for women in non-western countries to bleach their skin? To access a good life you have to be light-skinned. The influence of Western ideals is at the root, and it has been for centuries. From the use of Venetian ceruse, to topical steroid creams, there was no shortage of representations that the closer one was to whiteness, the closer they would be to success.

When surrounded by endless avenues that introduce harmful ideas of how to fix your insecurity, it’s hard to just accept the skin you live in. But accepting it is a part of the multitude of things that make you a human, flesh and bone. Culture lives within skin, so appreciating it means you can one day be proud of it. Models like Anok Yai and Alton Mason have completely altered how I see black skin, and in a world that will always have something to say about people of colour, that’s what we need to see more of; Black skin.

If you’ve ever bleached your skin, or even thought of it, don’t feel ashamed. You didn’t just decide to do it, because the environments you grow up in influence the way you see yourself. Understanding the harm it presents and how to help the people around you from repeating history is how we can grow from it. 


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