Yesterday, reality-TV star Blac Chyna posted an open invitation on Instagram to her 14.8 million followers to join her in Lagos, Nigeria, for the launch of her new skincare product, Whitenicious X Blac Chyna Collection Diamond Illuminating & Brightening cream. The pot of cream, which “brightens and lightens without bleaching skin out”, comes housed in a crystal-studded jar and is being sold sold for $250 (£195).
The launch of this skin-lightening cream has caused an outpouring of anger and backlash on social media, with many calling it out as highly problematic. One user said, “So much damage on many levels. Health, psychology, repercussions for future generations. This needs to stop.”
The dangers of skin bleaching have been known for years, with hydroquinone – the central ingredient in most skin-lightening creams – banned in the UK, due to the fact that it can lead to liver and nervous-system damage. However, the damage is not only skin deep. The problem of colourism is still a huge issue in Asian and black communities and culture, where “light is right”, with fairer skin being seen as both sexually more desirable and also a sign of privilege and wealth. This idea of lighter skin being superior to darker skin tones is a nasty hangover from slavery and imperialism, where wanting to look European did equate to greater privilege and more power. Also, lighter-skinned slaves were allowed to live in better quarters and had more privileges, as it was obvious they were the offspring of the white slave owners. This is why it’s shocking that, in 2018, a modern celebrity of the social-media age is still peddling this psychologically and physically damaging beauty ideal.
Skin lightening is rife in Africa (apparently, 77% of women in Nigeria use lightening products), with many European brands selling dangerous skin-bleaching products under the radar to the African market. Last year, Nivea courted controversy with its skin-lightening ad, which promised to restore the model’s “natural fairness”. In Ghana, pregnant women have been known to take glutathione pills in order to lighten their unborn babies’ skin, risking life-threatening complications, as well as birth defects, something Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) has warned against. There are no official figures for those who use skin-bleaching products, as many are bought “under the counter” or smuggled into the country by well-meaning relatives. Emmanuel Nkrumah, the FDA’s head of cosmetics and household chemicals, however, said at a media engagement on 23 February that “the use of these drugs has gone to an alarming stage”.
I’m half-Nigerian, and this story has hit me hard, as I have a skin-lightening-related fatality in my own family. A relative living in Nigeria died, in her sixties – over 15 years ago – due to kidney failure, as a result of using whitening creams for 30 years. I’m also a mother of seven-year-old twin daughters, who are mixed. One of my girls has fair skin and blue eyes and my other daughter has brown eyes and tighter curly hair. They are constantly stopped and admired, although I’m often told my fairer daughter is more beautiful. It makes me so angry that, from the age of two, they have been exposed to such prejudice and colourism. As a parent, I have to fight so much negative noise in order to nurture and preserve their precious self-esteem and self-worth.
For beauty companies and celebrities in the 21st century to be profiting from centuries of cultural imperialism and self-loathing is more than disappointing – it’s alarming and something that must stop. The physical and psychological harm is devastating, and to be seen as light shouldn't be an aspiration. Instead, all skin tones should be valued, accepted and loved.