The problem with skin bleaching

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Salma Ali, Ubah Medical Academy
Yusra Abdi, Ubah Medical Academy
Amira Adawe, a planner and health educator at St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health

“If only you were a few shades lighter, you would have been so beautiful, honey.”

AMIRA ADAWE GREW UP in a comfortable home surrounded by people who appreciated her skin. She was constantly reminded
 that her skin was the skin of the celebrated Nubian queens. Dark, melanized skin. The skin of centuries of hard work under the sun. The skin that represented kingdoms.

But there were moments where strangers would try to thrust negative views of darker women onto her.

Hearing such comments from anyone can greatly distort a young woman of color’s self-esteem. It
 was in these small moments (which happened quite frequently), that she realized that she was not considered beautiful based on European standards set up by our colonizers.
 It reminds us of a quote from the ever-amazing Somali-British poet Warsan Shire:

“I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here.”

The belief that whiter skin is more beautiful may come from many sources. It can be unconsciously picked up from a fashion magazine or a popular TV show. Or it can be learned through comments from family members or friends — like an aunt saying that someone’s skin looks “dirty,” implying that being dark is synonymous with unclean. Or perhaps that someone is spending too much time under the sun, indirectly saying that being dark is less beautiful.

As a result, some women buy 
skin bleaching creams because they believe that the less melanin you have, the more beautiful you are. In many cases, by bleaching their skin, women are trying to make themselves more attractive to men or battling each other for the distinction of “Lightest of the Month.”

Adawe, a planner and health educator at St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, found that many users of bleaching products are unaware of their health effects. Mercury, found in almost half of the creams at local markets, is extremely toxic and can damage the brain, stomach and renal organs, she said. Some women use these creams while pregnant, exposing unborn children to the toxins.

“Through the breast milk it can immediately go to the baby,” Adawe said. “We worry mostly about neurological effects.”

Despite these creams’ health, psychological and sociological effects, some in communities of color disregard these cautions, due to their yearning for acceptance, and fall victim to them. They consider the use of skin bleaching products and the cultural practices that go along with them.

A major challenge facing public health workers such as Adawe is how easy it is to purchase these products. Despite initiatives by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, on
 a given day you could easily find
 the products at a local market, even though state and federal officials have been working on the problem since 2011.

There are many ways we could begin to combat this problem.

First, we could directly target the media, advocating a greater focus on beautiful women of color. Women like Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Kerry Washington and Alfre Woodard should be cast (or continue to be cast) as normal, leading characters — not in the background playing small, nanny roles. This would
 raise hope and confidence in young women of color across the country.

Moreover, we could push Hollywood to create opportunities for disadvantaged, young people of color by eliminating discrimination in casting calls.

We would like to see white media be dismantled and replaced by outlets that lift up women of color, reminding us that we are beautiful. This would revolutionize our media structure, allowing for systematic change.

But media is just one example where, if we create spaces for young women of color to flourish, we would see widespread positive results in both achievement and confidence.

We see insecurity as the root cause of women’s desire to use skin bleaching creams, and one of us has had a personal experience with this feeling. As a darker-skinned black woman, family members have presented me the opportunity to bleach or “whiten” my skin. They made it seem as if they were doing me a favor by helping me look more socially acceptable. This, in turn, resulted in extremely low self-esteem and added more anxiety.

I just wanted to be beautiful. And I was not. I was conditioned to hate my own skin.

Meeting Adawe made us feel hopeful, because she reminded us that our skin is more than just beautiful: it’s our identity. It’s in our roots.

Influenced and empowered by education, Adawe has decided to dedicate her life to this work. She holds workshops that spread awareness for young women of color. She has taken this issue to the federal level — resulting in the ban of skin bleaching products containing mercury in 2012 — and is creating change that will affect the lives of black girls centuries from now.

We believe if we continue reaching out to communities, talking about the issues we face and lifting up women of color, we can combat this problem.

Our blackness is beautiful, and so is yours. 

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