Why African Women Bleach and the Golden Niche of Marketing


“Bleaching” is the preferred term in many parts of Africa for the use of cosmetics that lighten the tone of the skin.

In 2011, the German government funded a study by the World Health Organisation into the dangers of bleaching with these cosmetics, many of which apparently contained inorganic mercury, a substance that can cause kidney damage, suppress immunity, induce anxiety and depression, and even permanently destroy the nerves in the limbs and skin.

The report placed the stamp of authority of a leading inter-governmental agency on a matter that had long attracted negative attention: many women of African ethnicity – 77% in Nigeria for instance – around the world bleach intensely at a high risk to their health in order to feel attractive. Indeed a significant portion of their income goes into sustaining this practice.

African critics of bleaching were however surprised to learn that the practice was widespread in Asia as well, since for many of them bleaching was strictly an issue of racial pride, self-image and identity.

Those who had framed the problem as a pure African one would have been puzzled had they heard that in the preceding year Indian activistshad taken on a Unilever skin brand for allegedly promoting “skin-lightening” as a way of benefitting from the close-to-$10bn global trade in skin-whitening creams.

So like several issues of similar hue, a widespread ‘third world’ problem had been construed as a uniquely African problem, and much fuss made around a self-serving ‘African exceptionalism’ charade.

A little bit of history would have also taught some of the critics that in pre-modern Europe, women routinely ate arsenic in addition to rubbing the poisonous stuff on their skin in order to lighten their tone.

A little sociology would also have thrown up the uncomfortable fact that male bleaching is rising explosively and thus made a bit of trouble for the thesis that bleaching is all about male pressure and low female self-esteem.

Also worrying for the whole “self-image” framework of looking at the ‘problem’ might be emerging evidence that ‘skin-darkening’ may be the preference for the gay community in Asia’s hottest sex-spots, contrary to folkloric beliefs that male bleachers tend to be gay.


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