What does a lady having a consultation at her plastic surgeon’s office in Beverly Hills have in common with a woman in Senegal religiously rubbing her body with skin bleaching cream? They are doing everything they can to make themselves more “beautiful”. Now, stop for a moment and picture the three most beautiful women you can think of. —If you were to ask the average young Senegalese woman to do this exercise, she’d whip out her cellphone and take you through the countless pictures of Beyoncé, Rihanna, her favorite Indian actress, or basically any woman with light cappuccino skin. Senegalese women, like most women around the world, believe that celebrities are the epitome of beauty, and strive to emulate them as much as possible. But what is the result of darker women wanting to be the same color as their favorite celebrity? Skin bleaching.
You can spot a woman who bleaches by her knuckles. They will always be darker than normal, because no matter how many ways a woman bleaches, her knuckles will not lighten, even when the rest of her hands do. In the more serious cases, you know a woman bleaches by the drastic unevenness of her face color and texture, caused by the harsh chemicals found in many lightening treatments. Even if women are not bleaching daily, on special occasions they still try and make themselves lighter. At a wedding, you can automatically spot the bride by her makeup. Just like brides in America on their wedding day, Senegalese brides strive to be the most beautiful woman at their ceremony. This translates to brides applying makeup so that their face and neck are always at least three shades lighter than the rest of their body. Imagine Grace Jones wearing Beyoncé’s foundation for a day, and you’ve basically seen the average Senegalese woman on her big day.
The good news about all of this is that Senegalese women are fighting against the skin bleaching movement with a new beauty movement of their own. When I lived in the capital city of Dakar during the month of September, every morning on my way to language class, I was confronted by a billboard. It was an advertisement for Khess Petch, or “All White”, a skin bleaching cream, that guarantees significantly lighter skin in only 15 days. To say the least, it was not a billboard that left the typical Senegalese woman feeling beautiful and ready to conquer the world. However, just across the street there was another billboard, one with a more uplifting message. It featured a picture of a dark African woman, wearing a traditional headdress, and underneath her it read “Nuul Kukk. Black is so beautiful!” It turns out that Nuul Kukk, or All Black, was and is a campaign created to challenge the widely accepted practice of skin bleaching in Senegal. I was witnessing the beginning of the battle to define beauty.
Only time will tell which side will win, natural beauty or unnatural beauty. I hope that in the near future all Senegalese women will stop reaching for bleaching creams and instead begin to reach for their mirrors to admire how beautiful they are. I’m rooting for Nuul Kukk.
For more on the Nuul Kuuk vs. Khess Petch battle check out these links: