AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Delicious Skin Lightener
Neelika Jayawardane | January 17th, 2014

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Skin lighteners in Africa have a long history – so the appearance of Whitenicious skin lightening cream isn’t that surprising. What’s new is that the model used in the advert (heavily photoshopped) not only has a “lighter” skin tone, but has the sort of pinky-white skin usually only seen in the Caucus Caucasus region, and her entire body is shown to be similarly bleached (usually, we see the model’s face and neck, and sometimes the arms and hands). The text next to her image tells us that we can “Say goodbye to pigmentation and spots forever!” This incredible Barbie is Camaroonian pop-star Dencia, who is big in Nigeria.

One can purchase Whitenicious for “dark knuckles, knees and elbows” (large for $150; small for $80), and for “dark spots” ($90). But are you “shopping for someone else but not sure what to give them?” Why not “give them the gift of choice with a whiteniciousbydencia Gift Card?” (Don’t do this unless you want a woman to throw a jar of tastefully packaged Whitenicious by Dencia at your head.)

We learn, on the product info page (which tells us nothing of the chemical composition), that:

People with dark spots, acne, hyper pigmentation, dark knuckles and knees (all of which can leave your skin looking uneven) have endured decades of neglect among established international cosmetic companies. The continued marginalization of African descended men and women in the world market of cosmetics led to the inspiration of Pop Singer Dencia who later partnered with a renowned chemist to establish the highly innovative Whitenicious line.

In the world of cosmetic procedures and skin lightening products, “pigmentation” or “hyperpigmentation” is used to signify darker spots on one’s face and hands – not the general colour of the vast majority of one’s skin. So it appears that these clever people are just telling us to remove a few pesky spots. But looking at the model/pop star, who appears to be an African woman with the skin of a woman from the Caucasus draped over her, we get the point: we’re supposed to use Whitenicious as a general skin lightener.

So why is the company referring to pigmentation/spot removal? No matter how ever-present, skin-lightening is still a dirty word—we all know that those who resort to using these damaging creams are those who had too big a dose of colonial/present day white-skin-(and “European” features in general) is-the-standard-by-which-beauty-must-be-judged myth. But new products attempt to skirt the self-hate inherent in bleaching skin with a few clever rhetorical tricks. They claim to “remove dark spots,” “discolouration,” “age spots” or even “freckles.”

I know all about this because my high-society cousins try to get me to “do something” about my unfortunate freckles (thank you Portuguese ancestor and too much swimming outdoors) every year they see me. The new products – and the beauticians and cosmetic procedure clinics that proffer these products – masquerade themselves as part of the “healthcare” industry: evolutionarily speaking, clear skin means that you are youthful and free of some horrible, disfiguring disease. So rather than come out and say: “Here, bleach your skin, dark, ugly girl. If you were ‘fair’ then the marriage proposals will come in,” they now say, “Ah, discolouration. Spots. This cream will give you smooth, youthful, seamless skin.”

In the US and Europe, Clinique offers similar products (and they are not cheap), usually marketed to clients of European descent (also to Japanese and Chinese consumers). They contain also the same mix of compounds meant to bleach pigment.

And while I was doing research on cosmetic procedures and cosmetic surgery in Cape Town, I saw clinical-strength products claiming to remove spots (though product composition info was scarce). There’s a former kwaito singer, Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi – who achieved some minor success – who was very public about skin bleaching (as well as other cosmetic surgeries). And it’s becoming acceptable in Nollywood, too: Tonto Dikeh has spoken candidly about “enhancing” her already fair skin here.

No matter where they are sold, and no matter how they are marketed, the chemicals have the same effect: they may remove some of the pigmentation temporarily, but expose yourself to sun, and the pigment returns. After all, that’s what nature intended, as protection. The chemicals also remove the protective upper layers of skin and make it more sensitive, so one’s skin is more prone to damage from even benign amounts of sun (so the Clinique “clinicians” stress the use of high SPF sunscreen). Repetitive use leaves patchy, damaged skin.

One last point: attempting to transform one’s skin in order to display status is not just the realm of deluded African and Asian women. Paleness, once the realm of the wealthy in Europe and in parts of India/South East Asia in general (paleness denoted that one did not have to be in the sun, labouring outdoors), became, during the duration of the twentieth century, the sign of un-wealth among white Europeans, and those of European descent. That was because at the turn of the twentieth century, those who stayed indoors were the poor, who had to leave their farms and go into factories—it was the great exodus of the European Industrial Revolution. Only the wealthy could then be outdoors, going to St. Tropez and the south of France for the winter. A tan eventually became associated with a display of good “health”: being outdoors, exercising, enjoying leisure time – signs of power in the late 20th century and the early 21st. Ask any young, white woman why she burns her kin, and the answer will be that a tan makes her look “look better” or “healthy.”

Check out: Lynn M. Thomas’ “The Modern Girl And Racial RespectabiIity in 1930s South Africa,” in Journal of African History, 47 (2006).

 

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Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Twitter: @sugarintheplum

8 thoughts on “Delicious Skin Lightener

  1. I really hope she doesn’t burn her kin…But to speak seriously, don’t some of the whiteners have mercury or carcinogenic compounds in them, too? I know there’s questions about many compounds in all cosmetic products, but I thought I had heard that some of the chemicals that lighten skin were banned.

  2. There are many great reasons why I love and respect mom, but the fact she never bleached her skin when all her friends were, ranks high on that list. This thing has been plaguing Africa for decades; I have an aunt who is almost 70 years old who is still bleaching, for she is trapped int hat wheel, where to stop means she’d turn darker than she was originally, and the horror of that, she thought.
    Her skin, like a tree trunk, shows the various stages of her life when she was financially able and could indulge her whole body, and when she was struggling and would only bleach her obvious parts.
    She once fell so sick she was on the verge of death, yet the doctors were unable to operate on her simply because her skin was so deteriorated that any cut in it would never heal.
    Interestingly, this skin bleaching thing transcends the continent, and seems to inflict darker people anywhere. Case in point: Sammy Sosa, the baseball player, who is now a much, much fairer version of the slugger we once knew.

  3. Great article, but…

    The statement “pinky-white skin usually only seen in the Caucasus region” commits the same kind of ignorant generalization that you are (rightly) so critical of on this site in reference to Africa. The fictitious racial category “caucasian” is related to the culturally diverse geo-political region of the Caucasus in name only, and “pinky-whiteness” is not necessarily a dominant trait there.

    • Was being ironic. But forgot to put ‘thought to originate only in’ or some such marker to point to the
      fact that pinkywhite people in the Caucasus is a myth. Thanks for pointing it out and forgive us that we sometimes have 20 mins to drum out a post

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