By Aisha Sarr 


Africa’s colonial history has no doubt left a lasting impact on the continent.  While the socioeconomic impact remains evident, less acknowledged is the psychological impact that colonialism and colourism (internalised-racism in particular) has left on the African psyche.  Today, this presents itself in many forms, of which the ever-increasing epidemic of skin bleaching is one of the most notable.  The practice of skin bleaching in Africa disproportionately affects women, causing not only physical but psychological damage as well.


Self-esteem is an essential element of good mental health, and most easily and effectively nurtured when formed early in life.  Increasingly, however, young African women are bombarded with messages in their media, community, and everyday  life that conflates light skin with beauty, success, and other positive attributes, while dark skin is depicted as ugly, ‘common’ and downright unappealing.

This is particularly noticeable during advertising breaks of popular television dramas, the very ones that tend to attract millions of viewers.  There is a slew of less-than-subtle ads for skin bleaching creams.  In one ad that is often broadcasted on Senegal’s TFM channel, a dark-skinned woman breaks into the mansion of a light-skinned woman to raid a closet stocked with creams that lighten the complexion.  The light-skinned woman looks on bemusedly as the dark-skinned thief slips away into the night.  Whilst a nonsensical narrative, the underlying messages of this advertisement are innately harmful: they perpetuate an assumption that the thief, coveting the same life of beauty and luxury as the light-skinned woman, can only achieve this by bleaching her skin.

Another more direct ad aired on the same channel begins with two men chatting about their ideal woman.  One proudly proclaims that light-skinned women are beautiful goddesses and that he strongly dislikes the appearance of dark-skinned women.  He talks at length about his attraction to fair features with no blemishes; soft, light and beautiful skin.  His friend nods in agreement just as a light-skinned woman appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and struts past them.  Both men more or less lose their minds with excitement and chase after her.

The slogan? “You too can be beautiful by using this product.”

But these products are not a source of beauty, insomuch as a dangerous chemical cocktail that can cause the thinning of skin, blotchiness, redness and intense irritation, dark grey spots, skin cancer, acne, increases in appetite and ensuing weight gain, osteoporosis, neurological and kidney damage (due to high level of mercury used in the creams), psychiatric disorders, asthma, liver damage, and severe birth defects in children born to mothers who abuse these products.

But despite the science and the media alike, African society propagates these same pro-bleaching messages, all by itself.  Light-skinned women are praised from childhood, and held to a higher standard than their peers.  To be mixed-race or ‘café au lait’, ‘caramel’ or ‘metisse’ is considered exotic, and with that comes a heightened social status.  By contrast, dark-skinned children are more likely to be taunted or bullied, and it is not uncommon for mothers to deride their daughters for spending too much time in the sun.

With messages like these already so normalised, young African girls are developing a complex from a very young age.  In a society that pushes a narrative that the natural colour of a girl’s skin is problematic, how can we expect these same girls to grow into proud, self-confident contributors to society? At a critical time when girls should be focusing on their education, discovering their strengths, and honing their talents, many are instead passively internalising these messages and becoming more preoccupied with their physical appearance.

Sensitisation on a grand scale is needed in order to turn the tides and push women away from the dangerous practice of skin bleaching.  While governments in some African countries such as The Gambia have banned the importation and selling of skin bleaching products, sales have simply gone underground.  Thus, stricter implementation is necessary and more action is needed by governments and society itself to educate the general public on the dangers of skin bleaching. The horrifying side effects should become common knowledge, and skin bleaching ads should be banned on the basis that they are damaging to women’s physical health and self-esteem.

Governments, working in tandem with people, also need to accept that colourism and discrimination based on skin tone is very much a social issue, and one that cannot be further ignored.  An open and frank discussion at state level is certainly an opportune place to start.  Most crucially - and for the sake of future generations - parents need to become more mindful about how they approach the issue of skin color around their children. They need to raise their families to instead value their non-physical attributes, such as their talents.


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