Skin lightening strikes at the heart of young women

Written by  Sunday, 30 November 2014 01:00

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Those with fair skin go further. That’s the troublingly powerful message that my industry transmits. The entertainment industry disproportionately projects and elevates light-skinned women in magazines, films, music and commercials. If there’s a fair girl in it then it’s most likely she’ll be the lead – affluent, attractive, desired, rich and successful. I am not against light-skinned ladies being centre-stage or in the spotlight. I have personally used fair-skinned dancers and backing singers in my videos and live performances, not because of the shade of their skin, but because they had the right talent for the project. In an ideal world, opportunity should always come down to how good you are at what you do, not how light your skin is. Yet this ‘fair girls go far’ belief is so deeply engrained in Africa’s entertainment industries that a generation of impressionable young people are being driven to seek brighter futures by lightening their skin.

Audition insecurities

A huge bone of contention in west Africa’s entertainment hubs is that it is much harder for dark-skinned girls to get decent on-screen roles, and while there may be reasons behind this that are unrelated to an unfair industrial bias towards the fair, it’s the perception that’s almost as damaging as the reality.

Young dark-skinned aspirant actresses have told me that they feel discouraged to the point that they don’t even want to turn up to auditions because they believe they’re automatically at a disadvantage.

To improve their chances of making it in the most image-conscious of industries, many turn to skin lightening – and it’s not just young aspiring actresses. Older women are doing it too. In fact, even boys are supposedly doing it in Jamaica, and middle-aged men are targeted in India. The issue is presently out of hand and beyond reasoning.

I have never had to directly deal with this bias so far – not to my face at least (although who knows whether I have missed out on other opportunities due to discussions held behind closed doors where my skin tone was a factor in someone else’s decision-making process). But if someone were ever to suggest to me that I could, say, conquer the US and win a Grammy if I were to just lighten my skin a little, I would stand my ground and shut them down. Period. I am fine as I am and, more to the point, I have total faith in my talent. I would rather reach my career goals through working hard, working smart, and developing my gifts.

Mis-sold dreams

Ghanaian actress Ama K Abrebrese (second from left) fronts an anti-skin-bleaching campaignGhanaian actress Ama K Abrebrese (second from left) fronts an anti-skin-bleaching campaignI do know girls who are lightening their skin and it’s worrying that it’s becoming so normal that it’s not taboo, or even a cause for defensiveness. They’re open about it, almost proudly so. They tell me they are doing it because they believe that’s how to get further along in life. Someone should launch a skin lightening product called ‘Miss Sold Dreams’ for all those girls who have bleached and still didn’t get the attention or the success they wanted. If you are compelled to bleach because you think it will solve a particular problem in your life, there is no guarantee that it will. The problem may still remain, and then what? Being dark is not your problem – it’s a perverse society’s problem. Choosing to whitewash your beautiful skin turns their problem into your problem.

And fashions change. We’re in a world that changes daily. Lean ladies like Claudia Schiffer were in fashion in the 1990s but these days curvier ladies like Beyoncé are what girls aspire to. What if, one day, being fair skinned becomes unfashionable? All these girls who have spent all these years and all this money to become lighter, what will they do with themselves?

Bleach themselves back to black?

Companies to blame?

The companies that make these products profit out of people’s insecurities without regard to the impact that the messaging and the products have on people’s lives, both psychologically and physically. It’s ridiculous the amount of money spent on skin lightening products [Companies and Markets estimate that, by 2018, the global market will reach nearly $20 billion].

The money that is spent on buying these products would be better invested in developing talents or learning new skills.

Companies would stop producing these products if consumers weren’t buying them. They’re only catering to public demand. So long as there is demand there’ll be someone there willing to meet it.

Of course a woman has every right to decide what she does with her body, but I only ask how far are you prepared to go and at what cost? Are you also going to change the nose you don’t like, and the ear lobe you don’t like, and maybe the little toe on your left foot that you don’t like? You’re entitled to do what you want with your body, but how much are you willing to change? We need to learn to derive more confidence from what lies within, that way, when someone tries to convince us to change something about ourselves, we have the confidence to let them know that we are comfortable with who we are.

Aspire to be a great you

I’m writing this because I feel that we need to give our young girls something greater to aspire to… themselves. They need a new kind of self-confidence that comes not from how long your hair is, or how light your skin is, but a confidence that comes from deep within. A confidence that comes from knowing your potential, that comes from knowing what you’re good at, that comes from knowing that you can be great just by being yourself. Look at India Arie, Serena Williams, Ama K Abebrese and Lupita Nyong’o. They are successful because they’ve invested time, money, blood, sweat and tears into becoming brilliant at what they do, all whilst maintaining who they are.

Efya performingEfya performingAs a woman, no matter where you come from, you should have the self-belief that stems from knowing you are strong and special. Everybody has something about them that makes them special. If you find, develop, and use it, there’s no reason why you can’t become great. But we’re too often blinded by trying to fit society’s model of what ‘special’ is. If 100 girls are all trying to stand out and be special, and to do this 99 girls decide to spend money on lightening their skin whilst the one remaining girl decides to spend time on developing her talents, at the end of the day none of the 99 girls will be special because they all now look like each other, and it’s the one girl who is dark and now even more talented who will stand out as special.

Think about it.

If you come from a poor or disadvantaged part of the world and you are looking for a way – any way – to gain an advantage in life, I know it must be tempting (especially if other people are doing it too). When my mother gave birth to me at 25 her parents kicked her out. She didn’t go and bleach to create a better future for herself; she went to school. One of the tracks that means most to me on my forthcoming debut album The Love Genesis (finally out soon!) is called ‘Strong Woman’, a song that pays tribute to the strength and resilience of the female heart:

…and I made it through all the pain,

I made it through all the storms,

I made it through all the rain,

I made it through all alone…

Life will forever throw challenges at us, but if we call on our inner strength, we can survive and thrive. There are things you can do to make yourself a better person that don’t involve changing the colour of your skin. I fully back those in the public eye like Ama K Abebreseand Nandita Das who are behind awareness campaigns that give young girls the confidence to know that being fair is not a prerequisite for being successful – it’s all about loving yourself for who you are, and working on improving your opportunities through improving your skills. It’s a strong but really simple message: decide to be you, and then decide to be great at being you.

Jane 'Efya' Awindor,

Singer & actress


Nandita Das  India

Actress, director, Yale World Fellow 

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Nandita DasThe fact that in our society today we still accept these discriminatory advertisements on TV proves that we are a society in need of more awareness and education. Unlike Efya, I have had directors tell me that it would be good if I made my skin lighter as I was playing an educated upper-class woman. If I get told all this, despite most people knowing my stance, I wonder what the other dark women are subjected to! Without exception, I have stood my ground, as I really do feel comfortable in my skin…literally.

We ought to be defined by what we do, how we think and how we respond to situations, not by born identities like caste, nationality or the colour of our skin. We have no hand in them, so why feel proud or ashamed about them?

Be yourself and be comfortable in your skin. Don’t let anybody rob you of your self-esteem. Focus on your interests and talents and do things that make you happy, instead of making your looks the focal point of your identity. Let your attitude and behaviour define you and not just whatever you are born with. Stay natural, stay beautiful.

Nandita Das fronting the 'Dark is Beautiful' campaign in India

Multi award-winning actress Nandita Das has starred in over 30 films in her illustrious career. Also renowned for her work behind the camera, she made her directorial debut in 1998 and has sat on the Cannes Film Festival's main jury. She uses her considerable influence to campaign on a range of social issues, and is face of the Dark is Beautiful campaign in India. She is a 2014 Yale World Fellow.


Dr Ncoza Dlova  South-Africa

Medical practitioner and dermatology specialist, University of KwaZulu-Natal      


Ncoza DlovaAlthough some may employ the ‘personal choice’ argument in relation to skin lightening, it is important to understand the influence of societal standards of beauty, and the global cosmetic industry on this ‘personal choice’. It’s also important to understand that skin lightening is not exclusive to dark-skinned African women. It’s a global phenomenon, undertaken by both women and men (albeit at a lower frequency) in various parts of the world.

Simply put, effectively lightening skin will always entail the risk of serious cosmetic and/or medical adverse effects, and this fact must be highlighted in any dialogue pertaining to the practice of skin lightening. In my experience, most of the patients whom I have seen with complications due to skin lightening have pleaded consumer ignorance. They tell me that had they been well informed about the adverse effects of the skin lightening creams they would not have ventured into using the creams.

These ravages may take time to appear, giving the users a false sense of confidence which is later followed by disastrous skin effects. We dermatologists are the ones who have to deal with the physical and psychological consequences of skin lightening and our message is simple and easy to follow: the best skin colour is the one that you were born with.

pdfIconRead Dr Dlova's paper 'Women’s perceptions of the benefits and risks of skin-lightening creams in two South African communities'

Dr Ncoza Dlova qualified as a medical practitioner and dermatology specialist from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She is presently working on her PhD. Her research interests are on skin pigmentation and hair loss, as well as HIV and skin. Her commentary also contained contributions from Dr Ophelia Dadzie and Dr Antoine Petit.


Fatima Lodhi  Pakistan

Activist, student, founder of 'Dark is Divine'

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Fatima LodhiColourism is so deeply ingrained in the subconscious of Pakistanis that we are not even ready to accept that we do discriminate against each other on the basis of the skin colour. This behaviour is not only confined to Pakistan, or Africa, it is true across large parts of Asia as well, especially in countries like India, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines. In such places, the lives of dark-skinned people – girls especially – have been systematically worsened due to the belief that beauty only comes in light shades.

Our media is also playing a huge role in conveying these messages by broadcasting these damaging adverts for fairness creams. Women with dark complexions face issues like rejection from front desk jobs, and being overlooked for marriage. This is just a glimpse into the maltreatment they have to endure in this so-called ‘fair’ society. In order to land that dream job, or to find true love, the manufacturers of these products convince us to believe in their ‘beautifying’ products, each promising to make us lighter overnight.

As children, we were taught colourism by stealth through stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and The Ugly Duckling. What’s more, we are still feeding these same stories to our kids, instead of teaching them of the beauty in diversity. Why is being dark-skinned considered an oddity? Why can’t we learn to celebrate diversity and respect differences? Beauty does not come in a predefined shade, shape or size, therefore be confident about who you are and how you look because you are divine!

Fatima Lodhi is a development studies student, diversity expert, and the founder of ‘Dark is Divine’- Pakistan’s first anti-colorism campaign. Fatima has been featured by various national and international media outlets for her activism. As a young social activist, Fatima has been working to empower and strengthen women at the grassroots level. Her mission is to positively alter the way women perceive themselves. Aside from working for the basic rights and social acceptance of women who are dark-skinned, she also advocates for women with disabilities.
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Last modified on Sunday, 29 March 2015 22:49

Jane 'Efya' Awindor


Award-winning Afro neo-soul singer | Multiple Ghana Music Award winner | MTV Africa and World Music Award nominated singer | Actress | New album 'The Love Genesis' is out in Q4 2014

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