SKIN BLEACHING: the self-hatred billion dollar business

Esther A. Armah

Skin Bleaching products. They’re a global multi-billion dollar business. In Ghana, recent headlines of pregnant women swallowing pills in a bid to create lighter skinned babies ignited fresh horror, outrage and grave concern plus a campaign from Ghana’s FDA.

The health horrors of such actions are worth citing in detail. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) highlights that while the pills will definitely not bleach a baby’s skin, the toxic ingredients could lead to deformities in babies – they specifically highlight missing limbs.

Risking deformity in pursuit of a societal notion of beauty needs a different kind of scrutiny than our usual approach to skin bleaching.

Globally, we individualize the issue, pointing at the visible manifestation of toxic products on disappearing melanin and engaging in disgusted discussion.

In Ghana, we ridicule the bleaching of the boxer Bukom Banku – almost unrecognizable now his skin lightened several shades as a result of years of skin bleaching creams. In America, a particular focus for both bleaching her skin, as well as destructive plastic surgery, is the hip hop artist – Lil Kim – whose graduation from a brown skinned beauty to an almost unrecognizable near white imitation of herself has been the subject of endless scrutiny and commentary. Azealia Banks, another African American hip hop artist, has also visibly changed with her own brown skin several shades lighter due to skin bleaching. Oscar winning Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita N’yongo has spoken movingly about ‘praying for lighter skin’ and the pain her chocolate skinned self-caused her – although she has never said she bleached her skin.

Let’s move beyond the approach that lambasts the individual.

Let’s talk the business of beauty and self-hatred; its profit, its power and its pain.

Skin bleaching products are a $10-$20 billion global industry.

According to a report from Global Industry Analysts the skin-lightening industry will mushroom into a $23 billion business by 2020. An AC Nielsen report from as far back as 2009 estimated that in India alone, more than $432 million worth of skin-whitening products were being consumed annually. Global giants like Unilever and L’Oreal have huge chunks of this business. Others like Pond, Dove, Neutrogena and Garnier – also multinational giants – have a cash crop in these products.

Let’s talk the business of selling such products.

In India, these products are advertised using the business of desirability – particularly as it relates to women. Desirability is measured by marriageability. Adverts would depict a single, unmarried – read ‘undesirable’ – dark skinned Indian woman; and then through the magic of skin bleaching she would be transformed, become light and ‘desirable’ – read married. You will also see products targeted specifically at men in India. Their message was that lighter equals more handsome; a different but parallel message regarding desirability.

Nivea came under fire in Ghana after its ‘Visibly Fairer Skin’ 40 foot billboards ignited global outrage. In the middle East, the brand’s “White Is Purity” campaign was promptly pulled after being declared racist.

That racism is part of this business of desirability and its foundational ideology. Skin bleaching products profit from the industrialization of that ideology.

That ideology is white supremacy.

White supremacy is at the base of enslavement, apartheid and colonialism. It carries a false philosophy of whiteness as superiority and blackness as inferiority. That manifests in notions of beauty. Lightness – i.e. – being closer to whiteness becomes considered beauty.

Its particular manifestation is on the skins of Black and brown people all over the world via skin bleaching products. This business manifestation is part of the white supremacy beauty industrial complex. The trade in Black bodies that built economies and superpowers also carried a legacy of untreated trauma. That untreated trauma exists in societal notions of beauty. When it comes to Blackness, it manifests as ‘colourism.’

We have a molested beauty.

Black bodies are the receptacles for ideologies that preached, preyed and practiced that all we were was an ugliness. That ideology was legislated, practiced and became profit.

So often the narrative around beauty and the bleach is individual self-hatred. But, for me this scrutiny is about the institutionalized ideology that privileges something closer to white – i.e. colourism.

While we individualize skin bleaching as a tool of self-hatred, reflecting society’s belief in a beauty that lives closer to whiteness, it is crucial to recognize this as a multi-billion dollar business. It is this trade in ideology that protects profit of European manufacturers and turns nations in Africa into lucrative dumping grounds.

We have had bans.

In August 2016, Ghana’s FDA banned hydroquinone with effect from August 2017. It first banned hydroquinone back in 2005. This was after research revealed hydroquinone causes skin ochronosis and possibly cancer. As a result, it was banned in Asia, all European Union Countries, all East African countries, South Africa, and lately in the Ivory Coast.

Banned for use in Europe, it is not however banned from manufacture. So, in Europe poison peddlers mix their toxicity to form a deadly cream that murders melanin to the tune of billions of dollars in nations like ours. Such is the world of business. Profit rules.

Bans require enforcement by the relevant body to be effective. Indeed, unenforced regulation is worse than no regulation; it is the appearance of action and the reality of inaction.

Bans are bad for profit; so the peddlers of these particular poisons lamented long and loud when the first ban was announced. Their bottom line was being threatened.

This reflects another failure of our economies.

They privilege the needs of multi-nationals and punish the small businesses, the entrepreneurs – who might be recognized as the engines of an economy – but who are treated like economic orphans. Left alone to struggle rather than flourish, countries like Ghana sloganize a Ghana beaming and building via self-pride, but when it comes to skin bleaching products, multi-national economies continue to flourish.

We have had studies.

There were studies in Africa dating back to 1975, where the FDA noted a link between the use of creams containing hydroquinone – the ingredient that actually lightens the skin – and the development of ‘ochronosis’, a condition that can cause darkening and thickening of the skin, dome-shaped yellowish bumps and grayish-brown spots. A number of patients developed this condition even after South Africa limited the concentration of hydroquinone in nonprescription products to 2% in 1983. Studies have been done by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Toxicology Program

The untreated legacy of trauma that manifests via notions of beauty is not healed solely by pleas to individuals.

It requires recognition that skin bleaching is this industrialization of self-hatred. It is about bounty and business;

Tackling business requires a much more rigorously enforced ban; it means heavy taxation and further enforced regulation. It also requires privileging health over unrepentant manufacturers unconcerned by the health implications of the poison within their products.

We can choose to profit from a beauty business that serves health and not the struggle with self. All things organic and natural have become their own flourishing, global business.

It is that business that needs to be more rooted here in Ghana. That would mean incentivizing those creating skin care products that engage the wealth of rich national resources: Shea butter, coconut oil, cocoa pod ash, aloe; and then turn these brands into bigger corporations so they may take chunks out of the skin bleaching market.

The names of such products include Skin Gourmet and Kaeme in Ghana. There has been the rise and rise of Hamamat African Beauty as a growing global brand, marketing health, beauty and culture to a global market.

White supremacy was about the trade in black bodies. Let’s create beauty beyond that trade.

Business should flourish.

Let it be a multi billion dollar business of self-love and not self-hatred.