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Why do some black women want to bleach out their beauty?

CONTROVERSY: Popstar Dencia is unfazed by accusations she is promoting the dangerous practice of skin bleaching

WHEN A celebrity-endorsed skin lightening product sold out in Nigeria in a day, many were outraged that this dangerous aspect of black and Asian culture is seemingly still thriving.

The controversial range - Whitenicious - is backed by Cameroonian-Nigerian pop star Dencia who is the visibly pale ‘face’ of the product and appears to be an entirely different shade now compared to when she started her career.

Whitenicious - marketed as a knee and elbow skin lightening and moisturising cream - costs $150 per 60ml pot and has defied criticism to become an online hit. And Dencia - who has refused interview requests - took to her social networks to revel in her newfound notoriety.

A recent study from San Francisco State University found that high-flying African Americans are viewed as being several shades lighter than they really are. The study concluded that people’s memories comply with stereotypical ideas that associate “whiter" skin with favourable characteristics.

Psychologists say there are underlying reasons why people bleach their skin - but low self-esteem and, to some degree self-hate, are common threads.

A 2013 study by the University of Cape Town found that one woman in three in South Africa bleaches her skin. Most said they used skin-lighteners because they wanted white skin.

But the problem of associating lighter skin with more positive personal attributes appears to affect black and Asian communities globally.

The World Health Organization has reported that Nigerians are the highest users of such products: 77 per cent of Nigerian women use the products on a regular basis. This is followed by Togo with 59 per cent; South Africa with 35 per cent; and Mali at 25 per cent.  

In a confessional entry, blogger Myne Whitman, argued skin bleach was not just being used by black women who feel inferior because of their dark complexion. Admitting that she has used products similar to Dencia’s, she made the point that some use the products to even their skin tone and remove spots.

In the post - which attracted significant support - Whitman wrote: “My face is much darker than my body and back in my late teens, I wanted an even look.”

However, beauty specialist and entrepreneur Teresa Reynolds, founder of Incredible Brilliant Youth, which works to ‘raise generations of confident, self assured girls' and young women’, believes this is a damaging legacy.

PERCEPTION

The 27-year-old said: “You can’t ignore the self-esteem issues and this perception that having black skin is a bad thing.  It seems the colour black is always associated with horrible things.

“Black people should not still be carrying around this mindset that dates back to slavery, that people will reject them because of how they look. Sadly this is still being perpetuated in families and in communities by the attitudes of the older generation.”


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Phinnah Ikeji, who founded Black Role Models UK, agreed that the solution to the problem lies in the family experience.
She said: “We still, today, have this practice of referring to lighter as more beautiful.  You still find parents doing this to their children.

“The message, of course, that comes across is that the darker you are the more inferior you are.  So you have people growing up thinking that something is intrinsically wrong with them because of the colour of their skin.”

However, Ikeji feels that there is a positive shift in mindset, which she feels is a result of more obvious and positive black role models.

She said: “The young people I have been working with seem to have more pride in their ethnicity and I believe it is because they can see more people like themselves starting up businesses and claiming great accomplishments.

“I also think parents are beginning to get the message and are buying the black dolls that are available today and are doing more positive image reinforcements with their children.”

Reynolds offered that having darker-skinned role models such as 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o - who is celebrated for both her talent, beauty and style - was a massive help in promoting the idea that black is beautiful.

The beauty specialist also highlighted the importance of raising awareness of the health dangers of using skin bleaches.
Blood cancers such as leukaemia and cancers of the liver and kidneys, as well as a severe skin condition called ochronosis, a form of hyper-pigmentation which causes the skin to turn a dark purple shade, have been linked to such products.

UK-based scientist and consultant Dwain Neil told The Voice: “Melanin which gives us our darker colour protects us from dangerous UV rays. When you damage or remove that protection, you are leaving your skin more vulnerable to developing cancers. All the metrics out there will tell you that there is a higher incidence of skin cancer amongst people who have very fair skin, compared to people who have darker skin.  If people understand the biological benefit of having melanin in your skin they might appreciate themselves more.”

Reynolds added: “[Black people] need to celebrate who we are and how we look.  The beauty of humanity is its variety.”

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