Fade to White

Skin Bleaching and the Rejection of Blackness

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Twice a day, Kevin daly follows a bleaching regimen that includes steroid soap, a lightening shampoo, and two hydroquinone creams.
photos: Serene Ford
LAST MAY, veteran boxer Percy Oblitei Commey became the laughing stock of his country. The Ghanaian fighter not only lost his belt in a national super-featherweight bout, but he was also shamed before a championship audience who watched his skin quite literally peel away. As reported in the Ghana News Agency, Oblitei Commey's opponent opened a cut on his right cheek that cornermen just couldn't close. Then his nostrils and his right ear tore open, leaving him bleeding profusely, only to be jeered by the hostile crowd.

The reason his skin fell apart? He'd been bleaching it, a popular treatment in Ghana and other West African countries, to trade his dark appearance for a lighter one.

In a country where the people are dark and one's heritage is one's pride, Ghanaians are always happy to share a bit of their cultural history. Yet many are quietly continuing a chapter by fading to white. Locked in a practice that has gone on since the Europeans arrived in the 1500s, Ghanaians have been trying to lighten their skin, using various home recipes and commercial creams. "[Skin bleaching has] been going on for a long time, actually," says tour guide Nii Kpakpo Alloeei-Cofie. "I must say it began from when we had the British ruling over us."

These creams have made big news across Africa in recent years. Last May, Kenya banned the sale of many skin-bleaching products, a move followed by Uganda in August. The year before, skin specialists in Senegal also called for a ban. None of this has slowed the demand, in Africa or elsewhere. In November, a new cream called Solaquin hit the market.

Ghanaian officials have also been trying—without success—to ban bleaching products, while mounting public service campaigns about the harmful effects, including skin disease, that can come with stripping your natural pigmentation. The administration is helped by a small, determined group of African nationalists who are very vocal about the cultural regression of bleaching. They stand against the growing community of those seeking increased self-esteem in a lighter, brighter self.

The fight against skin bleaching is not limited to Africa. Hydroquinone, the leading ingredient found in most modern skin-lightening products, was first tried in the 1930s by some African Americans who found they could use it to fade discoloration. The chemical works by hindering the creation of melanin, causing dark colors to fade as older cells are replaced by bleached ones. Thought by some scientists to be a possible carcinogen, the substance is also used in the development of photos. Manufacturers of hydroquinone creams insist they're safe, but in 1995 then New York commissioner of consumer affairs Mark Green called for a ban on them.

The desire for lighter skin has proved tough to quell. Ghana won its independence in 1957, but many there get their views on skin color from a far earlier time. In 1844, local authorities and the queen signed an agreement stating that the British would protect what were then considered the thousand states of the Gold Coast. "At this point in time, people began to feel the European was superior to them," Alloeei-Cofie explains. "I mean, why not? All the fashionable things was based on European product. It became fashionable to wear European clothing, it became fashionable to try and speak like a European, and obviously it became fashionable for ladies and gentlemen to want to feel and look like Europeans."

This fashion craze can be seen in various parts of Ghana, but most notably in the capital, Accra. Salons offering beauty to Ghanaians use light women with long straight hair in their advertisements. Although the majority of these pictures don't represent the average Ghanaian woman, they seem to represent what some Africans deem beautiful. "I started bleaching because I wanted to get a new face," says 25-year-old Cecilia Animahh. "I wanted to look attractive."

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The Great White Hope

"For a long time I never saw a black doll before," Alloeei-Cofie recalls. "All the dolls you see are white. All the dolls you see have long straight hair." Ghanaians aren't shy about saying their countrymen bleach because of identity crises. They will tell you that in their patriarchal world, women do not feel attractive unless they can lighten up.

While Selina Margaret Oppong, 50, says she started bleaching "with the aim to brighten up the skin," Maama Adwoa, a hairstylist who's against the practice, believes women fade "because they think they might look beautiful." Cecilia Animahh is even more blunt. "In Ghana," she says, "some of the men want bleaching girls."

What's ironic is that in Europe and the U.S., many lighter-skinned people intentionally tan to get a flawless, bronze complexion. On the shelves of our drugstores, we can find sunless tanning agents. Tanning salons can be found from 86th Street to the Village. And let's not forget the various cosmetics available in the form of powders and foundations that promise a healthy, golden glow.

But while the West nurtures a white culture in which pale is bad, for many in West Africa bleaching provides an escape mechanism—the lighter you are, the more attractive and financially secure you must be. Oblitei Commey and numerous others are believed to use skin-lightening products as a way to boost their social status. "The villagers normally do [it] because they think if you bleach your skin, you're somebody, you're well-to-do," scoffs Maama Adwoa. "It costs a lot of money."

The creams are packaged in toothpaste-like tubes and can be bought from the local market where cosmetics are sold. A tube can cost 15,000 cidis, which is a little over $2. This may not seem as though it would put a dent in anyone's purse, but when the average Ghanaian makes $200 a year, preserving light skin can be expensive. "You need a bit more than 10 [tubes] to get it light,"Adwoa explains, pointing to her dark arm, then mine. "They think if you do that you are rich."

Nevertheless, achieving that high white glow seems virtually impossible for many. "I started bleaching two years ago but stopped because I started developing very bad stretch marks," Diana Gyaamfua, 28, attests. In addition to stretch marks, skin bleachers usually take on the appearance of being sunburned—their faces turn brick red and puffy, with black splotches.

"The commonest complication of bleaching that we see is post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation of the skin, especially at the areas around the eyes," says dermatologist Prosper Doe, of the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi. In lay terms, you start off looking for lighter, smoother skin, but end up darker and blotchy.

"If people look redder or have a stranger color, which in their eyes looks lighter than ours, they feel happier," the tour guide Alloeei-Cofie explains. African newspapers report that the trend among local women is growing. Any and all who can afford it do it: from the wives of public officials to the street vendors, the middle class to the poor. For those who fade, money is irrelevant. At the same time, this is a practice many Africans fear will cost more than money. "I can't go out in the sun because the sun is too hot," Animahh says.

For Abdullahi Gwarmai, the price was much bigger. He was fired from his job as speaker of the house of assembly in a northern Nigerian state. The practice is forbidden under Islamic law. But Gwarmai wasn't buying that explanation. "I have bleached my skin since childhood, and everyone knows this," he told the Inter Press Service. "My removal has political undertones. The issue of bleaching is not a good reason for my removal."

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This is a Warning

The dangers go beyond cultural and political problems. "There is suspicion of an increased risk of renal failure as a result of the mercury contained in some of the products that people use for bleaching," says Dr. Doe.

Since many bleachers don't seek help until it's too late, doctors are hoping public service announcements will open people's eyes. Maama Adwoa says she's heard the "stop bleaching" advertisements on radio and seen them on the television. "They say we should stop bleaching because of skin cancer and skin disease. But people don't want to listen because they don't know," she says, shaking her head.

They end up like Animahh, with such bad skin disease that they can't safely go out in the sun. Because there are so many bleachers experiencing negative side effects, a new wave of women are stopping. Even worse, others are using additional creams from local markets to try and turn their skin back to its original complexion. With consumers who are uninformed and all too trusting of beauty products, various West African countries continue to stand against the practice.

In the Gambia, for instance, the government officials have not only banned all skin-bleaching products—Bu-Tone, Madonna Cream, Glo-Tone, and the American-made Ambi—but left open the option of arresting those found with bleached skin. Officials in Europe have also been paying attention, with the government of Denmark banning skin-bleaching creams and soaps. Officials there have gone to several of the African shops and confiscated these products. Tura, a product the Danes have prohibited, remains widely used and popular in Ghana and among other African people.

These tactics may seem extreme, but doctors say they're not without reason."Some of these products were banned sometime in the past, but somehow, some of them still find their way onto the local markets where most of these bleachers get their products," Dr. Doe explains. "There, you don't need a prescription to buy anything."

In addition to the actions the Gambia has taken, a significant amount of West African government officials agree that hydroquinone should be outlawed. They want bleaching products tested and labeled "guaranteed without hydroquinone."

Yet Lustra, a popular product used by many, contains 4 percent hydroquinone. Its warning label reads: "If you should experience any type of irritation, redness, or a rash while you are using Lustra, discontinue using it and contact your dermatologist."

Bleaching for more than two years, doctors say, inevitably causes damage. In Ghana, it's not unusual for people to bleach much longer than that. Selina Margaret Oppong started bleaching five years ago with a locally manufactured soap. "I have no complications and do not worry about any," she says.

Maybe she should. Doctors are now seeing cases in which they cannot apply stitches to the skin because it has weakened to the point where it falls apart. "We do have surgical complications such as difficulty in suturing the skin and poor healing of surgical wounds," says Dr. Peter Preko, a Ghanaian doctor.

If the bleachers don't get why they should quit, any cabby can explain the horror he's seen. "Maybe you have some cut and you need some stitches," says driver Joseph Akrofi. "Normally the black body which is bleached comes off. So they can't do stitches." He says this slowly as if waiting for a reaction.

Black and Proud

The nonprofit Ghana Skin Foundation aims to educate people about the dangers of skin bleaching and eradicate the problem altogether. "The African woman must awaken to the fact that the color black is not an accident," First Lady Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings told the public, "but is purposely to enable her to adapt comfortably to the climate and environment in which she is created."

That message has begun to take root. Kofi, a proud young African from Accra, has a motto used by many Ghanaians who oppose skin bleaching: "If you're nice, you're nice. You can be a black, you can be a green." Although the Ghanaian government hasn't taken the steps that the Gambia and Nigeria have in trying to rid the country of harmful hydroquinone products, Ghanaians do believe their country's self-perception needs a boost. The activists are unclear, though, about how to make people love themselves. They want people to see that diversity is God's gift.

"You are not the one who created yourself, it's God who created you," Kofi says. "God knows who you are—that's why he created you a black or a white."

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