Trapped by Eurocentric Beauty: the Ubiquity of Skin Bleaching


For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be pretty. What ‘pretty’ meant was a mystery to me. In some ways, it still remains one. In the eyes of many African and Asian girls, ‘pretty’ entails Eurocentric features. Lighter pigmentation, lighter eye colour, a narrow nose; everything that is connected to Eurocentric beauty.

The importance of beauty varies in everybody’s minds but there is no denying that somewhere within us there is an underlying desire to experience beauty at least once in our lives. Beauty standards have changed throughout the years and still continue to change, but Eurocentric beauty is something that has been admired for years among the African and Asian communities.

In these areas, some are born with lighter pigmentation and eye colour. An example of how this benefits some is the paper bag test -when slave masters would compare a slave’s skin to the colour of a paper bag. Lighter skinned slaves would work indoors, while darker skinned slaves were kept outdoors in the fields.

With the end of slavery, one would assume that this bias would disappear too. Unfortunately, it still exists. Women of colour still face this on a daily basis. They are affected by it socially and economically.

Advertisements are certainly not making it any easier. The following are a few examples of these kinds of advertisements:

An advertisement shown in Thailand, and other parts of Asia, promoting skin bleaching.

An advertisement that was banned in Zambia for its promotion of skin bleaching.

A vintage advertisement for skin bleaching shown in America

The majority of us aren’t light skinned. We are darker shades of brown but women and girls who have Eurocentric features are treated better and considered more beautiful. This comes with its benefits. But how can we benefit from something which we can’t control? Many may argue that this doesn’t matter and preach universal beauty. This is a simple plea of ignorance. Try telling that to a 28 year old African woman who has been told that beauty conquers all and that it is through her beauty that she will achieve anything in her life. That her beauty must reflect an unrealistic standard. It leaves one in a situation of despair.

But not to worry – for those of us who are not gifted with light skin and a narrow nose there are quick, but painful, solutions to our problems, such as skin bleaching and plastic surgery. If you can’t afford it, don’t fret! Where there’s a will there’s a way. ‘Beauty is pain,’ my aunty always said to me. Before, I used to laugh, and thought she was crazy. Looking back with fresh, educated eyes I now know that she wasn’t playing a game.

Skin bleaching is not only damaging to external appearances but it is detrimental to internal well-being. Skin bleaching is like a silent pill used to solve a so-called ‘problem’ but, like all pills, it doesn’t solve problems forever. The problem is society.  Skin bleaching has become acceptable in our culture.  In fact, I can name several people I know personally who use skin bleaching as a beauty enhancement. If you were to look up ‘skin bleaching’ on YouTube right now, millions of results would pop up it with titles like ‘my skin bleaching routine.’

Skin bleaching is a 10 billion dollar industry. In the capital city of Nigeria alone, 77% of its residents have used skin bleaching before. Big companies are preying upon poverty and inexperience for financial gain.  The desire to be attractive seems to have surpassed the need for individuality, self-awareness and confidence. Skin bleaching has a guaranteed market. Despite the efforts of various countries to ban it, it’s still being done in secret.

My younger sister is very fair-skinned and whenever we visit the African continent, she is showered with praise and compliments about her skin, I go unnoticed. While I do not feel jealous of my sister, it leaves me questioning my importance. Do they purposely ignore me because of my skin tone? Is my importance determined by my levels of pigmentation? It seems as if looks conquer all. Maybe if I tried skin bleaching I would be showered with the same admiration and appreciation.

Afro hairstyles and beauty trends are seen as intimidating and unattractive political statements, while straight and soft hair is seen as responsible and suitable. This is why many women in the African community have chosen to do this with their hair.

Despite the efforts of international campaigns such as #unfairandlovely, which are condemning acts of skin bleaching and plastic surgery, the message just doesn’t seem to be hitting home. These ideas are too deeply ingrained in our brains. The dream of all races and ethnicities being appreciated and treated equally for their distinctive beauty seems almost unrealistic. Still, we have hope, and it is with hope that we keep on fighting and campaigning.

Colourism is a result of slavery, colonialism and institutionalised racism. Nowadays, bullying and favouritism are the effects of it. As a society, we need to fight back, and not let such a serious issue slip under our radar. Because if we don’t, who will?

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