The arrival of an American reality TV star to launch her skin-lightening line in Lagos stirred up some controversy in the recent weeks, as people debated how harmful skin-bleaching is and if it's appropriate for celebrities to promote such products.
That said, if you take a stroll down the cosmetics section of any Nigerian market or superstore, there is a high chance you will come across a variety of skin lightening products ranging from soaps, creams, and serums. Blac Chyna's arrival aside, Nigeria is one of the largest markets for bleaching products.
Skin-bleaching is big
The global market for skin lightening products is growing and is estimated to reach $20 billion by the end of the year, driven by strong demand among men and women across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Skin lightening products are unbelievably popular in Nigeria. The World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report in 2011 estimating that 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products regularly. This is in comparison with 59% in Togo, 35% in South Africa, and 27% in Senegal. In fact, bleaching products are reportedly the fourth most sought-after household item by African women, alongside essentials like soap, milk, and tea.
In Lagos, the skin lightening market has found a permanent home. The industry is so huge that it adequately caters to individuals of different social class. Product prices range from as little as ₦5,000 to as high as ₦150,000, depending on the brand and method of application. The amount of people who use skin lightening products is quite alarming in a country where the minimum wage is only ₦18,000. And, unsurprisingly, the exposure to popular western culture has also led to a demand for more expensive foreign products and consequently led to higher prices.
Money is clearly being made here, but it is not an excuse to ignore the requirement for public education on the issue of colourism and the consequences of the skin lightening process.
A Gateway to Success
To grasp the extent of Nigeria’s skin lightening obsession, we must understand why a significant part of the population feels the need to alter their natural complexion.
Africa's history of colonisation heavily impacted individual and societal perceptions of beauty. The oppression of Africans during the European colonial era, particularly apartheid in South Africa, still has a negative hold on the continent. In many parts of the black community, being light-skinned is a sign of beauty, superiority and socio-economic status. The moniker “White is Right” has shifted from a political ideology to a daily reality for many Africans. Other accompanying factors contributing to the high prevalence of this dangerous practice include media representation and the lack of public education.
Although men bleach their skin too, it is predominantly done by women. Many women have identified that the primary motivation behind this is status, privilege, and meeting society's standard of beauty. In Nigeria, colloquial terms like yellow paw paw and lightie—an international term—have been coined to refer to those with fairer skin, a compliment that opens up a wide range of privileges and opportunities for the recipient.
All Shades Matter
The deep-rooted nature of Nigeria's skin bleaching culture means that there is a very little chance of completely reversing the practice anytime soon. The open reception of Blac Chyna in Lagos exposed a small fraction of a much bigger problem.
However, more attention should be paid to regulating the cosmetics industry. Skin-lightening products are not effectively regulated in Nigeria. They are available everywhere in various forms, from roadside vendors to high-end stores. While many of them are legitimate products by recognised brands, others are volatile concoctions cooked up by in a back room somewhere, often with extremely harmful ingredients.
While ensuring that products are safe, there is a bigger question of changing the culture. Alongside effective regulation strategies, there is an urgent need for an attitudinal shift through public enlightenment and the eradication of deceptive advertising.
In the long term, the Nigerian government should look to push public awareness campaigns and educate Nigerians on the adverse effects of skin-bleaching. If people were adequately informed about the repercussions of their actions, they might reconsider them.
This clampdown should also involve the media and entertainment industry. Major cosmetic brands have a role to play in how certain skin colours are represented in the media. Just last year, the popular cosmetic brand Nivea was publicly chastised for putting out an ad that fostered the "fairer is better" agenda. These brands have a responsibility to change the false narrative that has been entrenched in the minds of many and reinforce the fact that "Black is beautiful".