Self-love – not bans – will bring an end to Africa’s skin bleaching syndrome

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 16 June 2017

Millions of dollars are being spent every year by Africans – both men and women, on chemicals made to lighten the skin, despite warnings about the terrible health consequences. But little is said about the psychological self-harm of skin bleaching in Africa.

Writing in theconversation.com, Black American professor of social work – Ronald Hall says that:  “To be black in the world today is to be stigmatised for having dark skin. To be light-skinned, on the other hand, is to be celebrated in line with western beauty standards.

“Black people not only experience this stigma from outside of their “racial” group. The bias against dark skin has also been internalised by black people the world over and manifests as colourism within the black community.”

But is this phenomenon of African skin lightening a complex response to feeling of low self-esteem, racism, or a simple expression of self-awareness and personal choice?

This is what professor Ronald Hall found out in his research, which concludes that; “Self-love – not bans – will bring an end to Africa’s bleaching syndrome.”:

My research suggests that African-Americans consider light skin as the most ideal personal characteristic one can have. And this internalised bias towards whiteness is not only limited to the US. In my 30 years of studying this subject, I have found it to be prevalent in all places where people of African descent live – including Togo, Senegal, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.

The stigmatisation of dark skin has led to the popular practice of skin bleaching. After discovering the practice three decades ago, I began to investigate a condition that I have named the “bleaching syndrome”.

There have been attempts by governments to discourage the use of skin bleaches through sales bans, but these have been largely unsuccessful.

For as long as black people continue to idealise light skin, the bleaching syndrome will continue to afflict many dark-skinned populations.

The bleaching syndrome

The bleaching syndrome has three components. In the first place, it’s psychological, involving the adoption of alien ideals and the rejection of native characteristics.

African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a famous “doll study” in the 1940s that showed how black children as young as three come to understand their place in the world as “less than”. They reach this conclusion long before they have the ability to articulate race. It’s a phenomenon black psychologists refer to as a “colour complex

This idea that dark skin is “less than” gets reinforced daily on television, in advertisements and through other forms of mass media.

The bleaching syndrome is also sociological. This means that it affects group behaviour in line with these ideals. The fact that black rappers systematically select light-skinned women to model in their videos is a good popular example of this.

The final aspect of the bleaching syndrome is physiological. Here, individual psychology and group behaviour eventually lead to the alteration of skin colour.

Demand fuels supply, despite bans

Throughout the African continent there have been attempts to discontinue the use of skin bleaches. These products are banned in The GambiaUgandaKenyaCote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Nigeria has not banned bleaching per say but has banned the toxic additives like mercury contained in bleaching creams. While experts in Senegal have called on the government to take similar steps.

Bleaching soaps and creams have also been banned in the European Union, Australia and Japan.

Despite these efforts it does not appear that the popularity of the practice has slowed significantly. In countries such as Nigeria and Togo over 50% of the women bleach.

The fact is that the continued demand for bleaching creams means that they will continue to be manufactured and sold on the market, even if they are illegal. The bleaching syndrome persists because light skin remains the ideal and the sale of bleaching creams remain profitable.

Treat the problem at its root

The “natural hair movement” offers a good example of how we may be able to combat the bleaching syndrome.

Natural black hair, afros and dreadlocks have been historically stigmatised – much as dark skin is today – and there was a time when Black people applied all sorts of concoctions to straighten their hair. In fact the first African-American millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker, made her fortune selling hair straightening products to black people.

But today, many black people take pride in their natural hair and refuse to straighten it. This was not achieved by banning relaxers and other chemical hair straightening concoctions.

Rather, it was political action that changed black people’s ideas about black hair. Stokely CarmichaelAngela DavisSteve Biko and Patrice Lumumba are among those who rallied against self-hate and spread a message of African pride. Natural hair came to be associated with freedom and justice.

The problem with bleaching bans is that they attempt to treat the physiological symptoms of the bleaching syndrome without addressing the sociological causes and the psychological colour complex that is at its root.

The bleaching syndrome will only come to an end when Africans and all black people learn to love their skin, just as they have learned to love their hair. Only then will bleaching creams become obsolete.

About the author:

Ronald Hall is an African-American Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University, USA, writing in theconversation.com.

1 Comment

  1. This bleaching issue is now endemic and taken root in Africa Europe USA and all other continents.
    Unfortunately Michael Jackson was so loved by many Africans that when he started lightening his skin people thought it was a good thing and emulated him. Artists are the last people who should be emulated because you learn nothing from them.
    Now it is so prevalent that you can walk on the street and hear a familiar voice but when you look at the person you cannot recognise them because they have changed beyond all recognition. Shameful.
    How can you loathe yourself so much that you change your God-given skin – the largest organ in the body?
    Don’t get me wrong, everyone is at it both blacks and whites. You only have to take a look at the US president to understand what I am saying.
    There are tanning booths and tanning creams for whites to darken their skin. The difference though is that those methods are safe compared to bleaching the skin.
    I am a dark skinned woman and I love my skin. I would not dream of changing it. If someone does not like my complexion, then that’s their problem not mine.
    The black skin ages very slowly and gracefully. I am in my 40s and even if am shocked why some people mistake me for a 21 year old. White skin ages fast and they spend thousands of dollars on nip and tuck,botox etc just to achieve that youth.
    I can sit in the sun for hours without getting burnt and I don’t need sun cream either. Rarely will you hear of a dark skinned person having skin cancer.
    So I am appealing to my black brothers and sisters, stop ruining your skins and those of your children. Love yourselves and be proud of who you are.

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