Skin Bleaching – My Thoughts
I wanted to use this blog platform as a way to communicate what I have been observing here in Senegal. The good, the bad and the grey areas. It has been amazing being here, and even more valuable being immersed rather than living in a bubble, per say. In a way, I will always remain in a bubble of sorts, as someone who doesn’t speak the language fluently and someone who didn’t grow up here, and hasn’t been here for very long either. I know; I’m not exactly creating a very convincing case for myself. Nonetheless, I look forward through these next few months to be able to write and reflect on some thoughts I’ve had while being here and observing things. I would like to remind anyone reading that this is purely my opinion and mine alone. I love discussion (those of you that know me know this!), so I would love to hear some commentary, in agreement or otherwise!
Before arriving in Senegal, I had heard of the skin bleaching culture. Having lived in both Canada and Vanuatu, I had never really seen skin bleaching culture in rampant and intense form before. I had heard about it through friends who had grown up around it, and with no question I had always been disappointed and disturbed by its existence. Though I had these feelings, it existed in my life as one of those things that ran parallel to the plane of my existence. I could see it in the distance from where I stood, though it was annoying and frustrating, it remained in the distance, far from my every day experience. It made me feel uneasy to see an instagram video about it, or to see an advertisement that was dubbed horrible for the promotion of skin bleaching. I had only experienced skin bleaching as a far away issue, which like many other distant issues, entered my thoughts every now and then, but didn’t live beside me and force me to face it head on. It was easy to see it as a quiet observer, outraged for 30 seconds when reading a Facebook post condemning it and then immediately having it leave my mind and allow me to carry on with my day.
So indescribably easy. What made it easy too was that now, in hindsight, I see that all interactions I had with the topic of skin bleaching were in condemnation. Every time I saw a post, read an article, watched a video and sat in on a conversation about it, I was speaking with people who hated it, and thought it was wrong. I mean obviously it was wrong… right?
This is where Senegal comes in. The culture of skin bleaching rages below the surface, expertly hidden from plain sight and ingrained in the day to day. There are barely any voices here that castigate and denounce skin bleaching. On the contrary, for the most part it is not spoken about negatively. It is sewn into the fabric of life here, one painful and unseen stitch at a time.
When I first arrived, I already saw the beauty standard for women being very different from one that I might have experienced in my life before. Where in North America, there is pride in being skinny and skeletal, here in Senegal if you are married and haven’t gained weight, it is definitely a bad thing and means you are not happy. In terms of clothing, the coordination outfits and their styles are uniquely and creatively Senegalese. Through all these differences, there was one in particular that stood out to me particularly, but didn’t become clear to me immediately.
Initially in the first few days of my arrival, many approached me, complimenting me. They said I was beautiful. I noticed they would touch my skin and beam at it, calling it beautiful. Rafet! The overwhelming lack of linguistic ability paired with being confused in general didn’t allow me to deconstruct what was actually happening through these interactions. They were looking at my skin and wanting it, wishing they had it. Over the next few weeks and continually today, I have been approached by people fawning over my skin. Women specifically.
They ask me how did you get your skin like that? “Khessal?” They’d ask (the Wolof word for skin bleaching). They tell me they wish they could have my skin. I was instantly uncomfortable with the comments, often at a loss for words on how to respond, what to say. With my limited vocabulary, how could I communicate what I thought? And was it my place to tell these women, who use these products every day, that they were wrong? Who was I, an 18 year old kid fresh out of high school, to tell them that what they had been applying every day, the image they had been told to attain, was bad?
I am still at a loss on what to say to be honest.
When I tried, in French, to discuss this topic, I was asked what I thought. I responded carefully that I didn’t agree with it, and I thought the deep rooted image that whiteness equals perfection is unhealthy. They considered what I said and said they also agreed. They replied and said does it matter if it’s wrong? That is ‘la mode’. Fashion, trending. And if that is what will make us beautiful in ‘la mode’, then why shouldn’t we follow it? At this point I was floundering like a fish. They said it made people treat them better, call them beautiful. That is what men want. That is what will get these women hired into jobs. It gives them respect. I was rudely reminded at this point that it’s all well and good to say something, but to change something so deeply instilled in a society takes more than one comment. And it’s true, if they are treated better with whiter skin, something else also needs to be changed.
It is not the responsibility of women to switch back to not using skin bleaching products just so that they can be alienated further and treated with more disrespect than they already are. And that’s worldwide. Mr. International needs to step his game up and do better. The women that step out at the moment and are proudly dark and natural are met with hatred and disrespect. A lot of men claim to only date ‘light skin women’. Women say they are treated better in professional settings if they have lighter skin and straightened hair. And this isn’t myth and legend; they genuinely are treated better in professional and romantic settings with lighter skin.
Statistically, darker skinned women are less likely to be married than lighter skinned women. There is a stark difference in pay rates between light skin and darker skinned men. Darker skinned women are given longer prison sentences than their light skinned peers. Dark skinned girls are also three times more likely to get suspended in school than light skinned girls.
According to the World Health Organization, skin bleaching can cause severe physical damage, like damage to vital organs. Besides physical damage, the psychological damage is staggering. You can’t necessarily put a number on psychological damage, but the mindset of inferiority is mind boggling to say the least. Insecurity that bites at the core of your identity is debilitating. It is so deep seated that severely lightened skin is referred to as ‘natural’. It is so deep seated that straight hair wigs are called ‘natural’ as well. It is so deep seated that another Wolof word for looking beautiful, or put together is ‘dafa toubabi’ (toubab is the word for foreigner, essentially using foreigner as a synonym for beautiful).
After some reading, I have also discovered that a mind boggling 40% of African women bleach their skin. That is an enormous number.
The idea of associating whiteness to purity, beauty and greatness is unhealthy and harmful. And yet it is so prevalent. Again not just here, but everywhere. The uncontrollable mental link between success and whiteness is so deep rooted within us, and we all need to work to eliminate it. Not to think that dark skin is better than light skin, but to go beyond this useless argument and establish that skin colour is not a measurement of worth, whatever that colour may be.
And this is not some underground, black market issue, running illegally. These products are advertised on huge billboards, on television, handed over the counter at the pharmacy and sold in markets. They’re handed to you with promises. There are billboards littering the streets, social media and regular ole run of the mill media. This is huge and in your face, and legal.
Some countries on the continent have banned skin lightening products, like Ghana, Cote D’ivoire and Rwanda. But even the banning doesn’t stores from selling them like they always have, and how do you erase decades of psychological manipulation through a single ban? It may be a step in the right direction but there are much deeper themes that have to at least be discussed and brought into the open for people to confront them honestly.
This has also been a great opportunity to examine normal beauty standards I participate in that need to be deconstructed. Maybe things that I didn’t even realize might be messed up until I realized how ingrained and undercover skin bleaching is here. Barely anyone thinks its bad. It has been really interesting to look at certain things I do and evaluate… Why and how has this been instilled in me? WHY do I do this? Is there a deep rooted sexist or racist root to this? What are the negative affects physically, or psychologically? It has been a really interesting exploration; and I would encourage anyone reading this to challenge yourself and discuss it. Things like make up, high heels, shaving, etc have all come into question for me. Without exploration of the topic of beauty standards and practices, we’ll never be able to dismantle some of these self destructive tendencies.
This is a system that obviously needs to be questioned in the least, by all those participating. This means the women that use it, but also the men around them, employers that favor light skin employees, the government who has control over regulation and of course the observers. Everyone involved has to do their part to create a discussion. And now you, the person reading this, are involved BECAUSE you are reading this…
I wish you luck in your future discussions about this! Bring it up! It’s worth it.
Thanks for reading and see you next time!