I was deeply shocked last week by Nivea’s ‘Natural Fairness’ campaign showing Nigerian actor Omowunmi Akinnifesi applying their latest cream, which promises to visibly lighten the skin.
Even with ‘safe’ ingredients, the fact major brands are touting the ‘whiter is better’ dream in 2017 is mind-blowing. Globally, skin-lightening products are said to be worth £7.5bn. This ad targeted African consumers, but skin bleaching is a hidden problem in the UK.
Here and now, there is still a stigma to having dark skin – I recently had to intervene when I found out a 19-year-old acquaintance was using skin-bleaching creams in London. Indeed, within my family there has been a beauty fatality. A relative living in Nigeria died in her sixties, over 15 years ago, due to kidney failure from more than 30 years of using whitening creams.
Hydroquinone, the central ingredient in most of these creams, is banned in the UK, as it can lead to liver and nervous system damage. But even with the ban, they’re easily available. You just need to pop into an afro hair and beauty chain, such as Shaba Hair & Cosmetics, which have faced fines for selling banned products in their Peckham and Dalston outlets.
Many under-the-counter skin-bleaching creams are laced with toxic ingredients, such as mercury and arsenic. The practice is psychologically damaging – its prevalence makes you feel your natural melanin isn’t desirable. Thankfully, celebrities such as Lupita Nyong’o and the ad campaign for Rihanna’s beauty line, Fenty Beauty, are changing the game. However, lighter skin is seen as aspirational to many among Asian and black communities. My twin daughters are a walking social experiment. I’m half Nigerian and Trinidadian and my husband is white British, so we have mixed six-year-olds. Ola is light-skinned with blue eyes, while Adanna is darker with tighter, curled hair. Young and old people tell me how beautiful my girls are, but many say, ‘the lighter one is much prettier as she’s fair’. But where does this thinking come from?
Centuries of colonisation have taught people of colour they’re second-class citizens. Growing up, I had few dark-skinned role models. There was Iman and Naomi Campbell, but they were often made to look like exotic creatures. Does anyone remember Iman in Tia Maria, the Princess of Darkness? As a child I felt insulted.
Today, the only Disney princess my daughters can identify with, Tiana from The Princess And The Frog, is a frog for most of the film and her biggest aspiration is to run a restaurant with a penniless jazz-loving prince. What is this teaching? Wouldn’t you want to be Elsa with super-human powers and your own kingdom?
Some people argue the fake tan industry is the same thing in reverse. But tans are associated with luxury holidays not self-loathing. Brands have a responsibility to stop promoting these negative stereotypes. In 2017, you, me and our children deserve better.