Skin lightening creams in Senegal. Many are illegal, but are easily found in shops.

Back in 2011, I wrote about Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi, a South African musician who’d undergone skin bleaching because she had a “passion for whiteness.” Back then it seemed like the media had finally caught on to bleaching as stories about baseball legend Sammy Sosa, popular dancehall artist Vybz Kartel, and practice of skin bleaching and chicken pills in Jamaica began pouring out.

Since then, skin bleaching has exploded across several countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, where dark skin is seen as an ugly impediment to success.

Recently, a study conducted by the University of Cape Town found that over a third of women (35%) in South Africa bleaches her skin, most admitting that they do so because they want “white skin.”

In an article about skin bleaching in Africa, the BBC caught up with South Africa’s Mshoza. The 30-year-old singer, and mother of dark skinned children, claims that she once struggled with self-esteem issues but now that her skin is several shades lighter she’s happy.

(video via BBC)

“I’ve been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted to see the other side. I wanted to see what it would be like to be white and I’m happy,” she told the BBC.

She added: “Yes, part of it is a self-esteem issue and I have addressed that and I am happy now. I’m not white inside, I’m not really fluent in English, I have black kids. I’m a township girl, I’ve just changed the way I look on the outside.”

Skin lightening can come at a high cost. Legal and illegal skin bleaching creams can cause blood and skin cancers and many dermatologists across the continent have reported seeing increased numbers of burns, skin damage, and ochronosis, which can cause the skin to turn a dark purplish color.

Dr Noora Moti-Joosub of South Africa told the BBC: “I’m getting patients from all over Africa needing help with treating their ochronosis. There is very little we can do to reverse the damage and yet people are still in denial about the side-effects of these products.”

Despite the skin-whitening explosion in South Africa, according to the World Health Organization, Nigerians are the biggest users of bleaching agents, with 77% of Nigerian women using them on a regular basis.  Sadly, other African nations are not far behind, however. According to the BBC, 59% of women in Togo and 25% of women in Mali also regularly bleach their skin.

Dermatologist in Dakar, Senegal with pictures of patients whose skin was damaged by lightening treatments.

But it’s not just women. One of the most troubling quotes that stood out in the BBC’s report was that of Jackson Marcelle, a Congolese hair stylist. Marcelle admits to undergoing “special injections” for the past decade to lighten his skin because he doesn’t like being black.

“I pray every day and I ask God, ‘God why did you make me black?’ I don’t like being black. I don’t like black skin,” he explains.

Marcelle, who’s known in his community as Africa’s Michael Jackson, adds: “I like white people. Black people are seen as dangerous; that’s why I don’t like being black. People treat me better now because I look like I’m white.”

Skin bleaching is troubling on many fronts. Using illegal whitening agents can not only cause deadly cancers or permanently scar a person’s skin, but seeing our African brothers and sisters going to extremes and risking their lives to look more like those who once colonized them is heartbreaking.

While many like Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana is a vocal opponent of skin whitening, it’s going to take some serious work and a cultural shift to end the practice around the world.


*Photo cred: Zed Nelson. To see the entire archive visit the Institute website.  

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