Skin Lightening in Senegal

The other day as I negotiated prices on shampoo in a cosmetics boutique in Kolda, I was competing for the storeowner’s attention with half a dozen women, all of whom wanted skin lighteners. The lightening creams had pictures of light-skinned black women on them (the West African equivalent of a lighter-skinned woman is more Oprah Winfrey than Halle Berry or LaToya Jackson). There is a twisted sentiment among many women here, as there is in the United States and the rest of the world, that men like lighter-skinned women, and that lighter skin is generally more beautiful. The New York Times recently ran an article on the subject of skin-lightening creams and their detrimental effects on users’ health, including damage to the nervous system.

For all the gaps in people’s understanding of the danger of these creams in the United States, there is surely even less comprehension here in Senegal. As I am learning with chemical pesticides for plants, many people here simply want to see results in a skin cream—they are unaware of just how damaging improper and excessive use of certain chemicals are. There are grades of diesel and insecticides available here that have long been banned in the United States. In Senegal there exist few, if any, functioning regulatory agencies to control harmful products, inspect meat, or inform the public of a product’s content and dangers. Who knows whether or not these women fully understand the harm they are inflicting upon themselves.

I have spoken to several Senegalese people about this, and most of them disagree with the practice and acknowledge that there must be some health consequences associated with it, even if they cannot pinpoint exactly what those consequences are. There certainly is an awareness of the skin gradient here, as someone who is even a shade lighter than most people is almost always described as such.

Even if people openly condemn the skin-lightening phenomenon, the unspoken nature of the sentiment remains: lighter seems to be better. Back home, Beyoncé is still the It girl while embodying a terrifying racial transvestism—at times, she is like a blonde, bronzed Shakira, with long golden curls and digitally lightened skin in her videos. I acknowledge that one of the causes for the skin-lightening trend is a deep history of colonialism and psychological oppression that will take centuries to undo. Still, what will it take for women the world over to stop damaging themselves to make their hair straighter, their eyes more “Western,” and their skin whiter? What do you think about this?

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2 thoughts on “Skin Lightening in Senegal

  1. When the negative health consequences of skin lightening are obvious, as they appear to be in this case, I think it’s easy to condemn the practice as horrible. To me a more interesting thought experiment is to consider: what if there were products that lightened black skin and caused absolutely no harm? Some of us American women shave our legs and pubic hair and dye our hair, and most people here think that’s normal and even commendable. Some get boob jobs. I think those activities are driven by a desire to look young and sexually attractive (though in the shaving category, that may be driven by commerical hair-removing interests). When Senegalese women use skin lighteners, that seems obviously driven by a desire to look white. Which again seems awful, given the history of African/white relations. Anyway, thanks for the great reporting and insight into something about which I knew nothing!

    1. Even if black women used skin lighteners that posed no health risks, I would still think it was f*** up. Why? Because race itself is sexualized: it’s almost ingrained in our psyches that “white” features are more accessible, more beautiful. When women get nose jobs to lose their “big noses,” they say they just want a more “streamlined profile,” but isn’t it, at bottom, a racial thing? No one ever says they want to have a “more Jewish nose.” It’s not that these black women are making efforts to look like pretty young women (a combination of hair, eyes, nose, etc.), rather, just the fact of whiteness is a symbol of beauty. I can better understand a desire to look younger (Botox, boob lifts), as a way to look like a younger version of YOURSELF, but isn’t there something deeply scary about a desire to hide aspects of your ethnic makeup in order to look like someone ELSE? Then again, some would argue that beauty is in your own hands, and if you have the cash for it, do what you want, it’s no one’s business to judge.

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