According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 77 percent of Nigerian women—the highest percentage in the world—use skin-lightening products on a regular basis. Usage is sky-high in South Africa, too, and in both countries, as well as in other parts of Africa, it’s fueled by the widespread availability of a plethora of cheap, purported skin-whitening products.Researchers pinpoint Apartheid-era South Africa as a major driver in the quest for lighter skin in that country and across Africa.Although there’s evidence that the desire for whiter skin—among women particularly—goes back much farther than that time, “in South Africa, like in the U.S. in the slavery and post-slavery eras, the possession of dark skin was associated with lower social status, since social status was legislated by color,” says Nina Jablonski, distinguished professor of anthropology at Penn State University and author of “Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color.”“If you were a ‘black’ or a ‘bantu’ and you had light skin, you might be able to pass as a ‘colored’ and be accorded somewhat more privileges and the ability to move somewhat more freely. Or, if you were a light-skinned ‘colored’ person, you might be able to pass as ‘white’ and have no restrictions. So in those contexts, lightness was very strongly favored.”In Apartheid-era South Africa, the manufacturing of bleaching creams similar to those that had been developed as a cottage industry in the southern U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began in earnest and today, that industry is still flourishing in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa.
Lupita Nyong’o Is Inspiring Change
“You would think that 22 years into democracy in South Africa, the trend would have changed, so it is fascinating to us to figure out why it hasn’t changed to lighter people wanting to darken their skins,” says Lester Davids, molecular cell biologist in the department of human biology at the University of Capetown in South Africa, who works closely with Jablonski. “It just shows that the power of marketing and also the power on the psyche of a nation of what was enforced in those earlier years has still not lifted.”Here in the U.S., the tide shifted after the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements began and took root, and there is evidence that the sale of skin-bleaching products actually came down, Jablonski says. As the industry evolved and controls were more strictly enforced, the dialogue moved to one about evening out skintone and maintaining healthy skin, as opposed to actually lightening or whitening it, since arguably, the higher amounts of melanin present in darker skin can result in more pronounced hyperpigmentation and dark spots.Nevertheless, dermatologists warn that the prolonged usage of over-the-counter creams to even out skintone can also have an adverse effect. And on a deeper level, anthropologists like Jablonski argue that although the semantics may be different today, the underlying desire for lighter skin among many dark-skinned women even in the U.S., albeit not directly expressed, is still very much present.“When you have a beautiful young woman like Lupita Nyong’o, with her glowing health and beautiful dark skin, women look at her and say ‘thank you,’ but they also look at Beyonce [Knowles] and other very light-skinned African-American women who have the whole package of light skin, straight light hair and so on,” Jablonski says. “This is a very strong signal to go against because there are so many more of the Beyonce type.”MORE: Meet the African Fashion Designer Who Won’t Use Skin-Lightening Models