~ Five minute read ~

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I was asked by an old school friend if I would write a blog for a work network. I said yes. This is it………….

Lights out, I was crying into my pillow yet again! Silently sobbing so that my sister wouldn’t notice that anything was wrong. Not that she’d be able to see me anyway, I was as dark as night.

It’s not that I didn’t know I had dark skin. I had lived with myself for years and I was now a teenager. It’s like telling someone who is 6’5” that they’re tall – not brand-new information.

It just hurt to hear it – repeatedly. I dreaded going to school. I was being mocked about my dark skin, by a boy darker than I was! It didn’t occur to me at the time that he probably did it as he was feeling uncomfortable in his skin. I took it that being dark was a bad thing – I was ugly and I needed to do something about it.

That’s how I found myself stood in front of my bathroom mirror, door locked, holding on

to a secret purchase. This bar of soap was going to lighten my skin and make me beautiful. I tried not to breathe in the toxic fumes as I scrubbed my face, watching it go red and my skin tighten.

Thankfully, my trait of ‘quitting things easily’ came in handy as my secret skin lightening mission didn’t last long. I had all but forgot about that time in my life until I was asked to write an article on skin bleaching for the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) network and the memories started to come back.

Although I remember using the soap I don’t recall purchasing it or knowing how it existed, especially as the internet wasn’t around then. The phase that I went through can’t have lasted more than a couple of months unlike many black people across the globe who use lightening products daily, some to devastating effects.

I set off on a mission to find out more about this. First stop – a couple of Afro Hair shops in East London. Feeling like an undercover journalist, I asked the shop keeper if they sold many of the lightening products. He advised that although they do sell a few, they are not as effective as products you can purchase in other countries as in the UK it’s illegal to sell products that contain certain ingredients.

I thanked him and left, wondering why if they didn’t contain banned ingredients were they behind the counter? I was going to try a different approach in the second shop.

I browsed the aisles and came across a whole section of lightening products, all following a similar branding pattern: ‘Maxi White’, ‘Fair & White’, ‘Caro White’, ‘Sure White’, ‘Soft & White’ – there was nothing subliminal about these messages!

This time, I told the shop keeper that I wanted to lighten my skin and asked what the best product would be for me. With no shock in his face nor hesitation, he reached for a product and placed it in front of me – his actions were those of a man that had done this on many occasions.

This soon came as no surprise when I found out that skin lightening industry is worth over $10 billion dollars worldwide and that figure is set to rise.

When I typed ‘Skin Bleaching UK’ into Google a page created by NHS.uk entitled ‘skin lightening’ was in the number one spot.

The opening paragraph states:

Skin lightening, or skin bleaching, is a cosmetic procedure that aims to lighten dark areas of skin or achieve a generally paler skin tone.’

This statement hit me hard coming from an organisation I work at. The page does stay neutral though and mentions the risks of lightening the skin and advises those interested not to ‘rush into it’ (source: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cosmetic-treatments/skin-lightening/)

Then I read on to find out that the banned ingredients that the shopkeeper mentioned were available on prescription from the doctor. The reason that you’re not able to buy products containing hydroquinone, corticosteroids or mercury over the counter is due to the possible risks, which include:

  • thinning of the skin
  • visible blood vessels in the skin
  • scarring
  • kidney, liver or nerve damage

And yet these risks do little to stop the thousands of people across Britain that have been illegally buying the ‘super strength’ products to lighten their skin.

  • Between 2002 and 2016 a council in London fined 19 businesses a total of £394,000 for selling skin lightening products.
  • In 2017 London Trading Standards fined 15 retailers a total of £168,579.

Although this secret trading underworld is taking place in the UK, our rules and regulations do keep people safer. Unfortunately, this is not the case in other countries.

My research led me to watch two very different videos about skin bleaching, which were eye opening to say the least.

First up, Senegal, Africa where 10% of female patients that visit the Aristide Le Dantec Hospital in Dakar, get treatment for infections and diseases caused by skin bleaching. Although these women know that there is an increased risk of skin cancer, they believe it is worth the risk. A doctor at the hospital showed images of burnt and infected skin and reported that most skin bleaching products are developed in America or Europe and deported to Africa.

Women in Senegal are constantly fed, via advertising, that having lighter skin will bring you more success. The billboards are plastered with models that are almost white and the most popular TV stars are those with caramel skin. Unlike the ‘white branding’ products on the UK shelves – the adverts go further. One showed a black woman looking unhappy and dull comparing to a lighter skinned model who was ecstatic and loving life, due to using the product!

The men interviewed for this documentary all said they preferred women who had dark or their natural colour skin. The same can’t be said in Jamaica, which was the second of the documentaries I watched. Numerous people were saying that black skin was ugly, and they were only attracted to light skin. One woman explained that as it is not cheap to buy the products it’s not embarrassing to use them, it shows you have a job and can afford them.

In Jamaica, both men and women use the lightening products. In one scene you see a girl mixing three products together, one which would burn the skin if put on neatly. She then slathers the solution on her legs. Her brother excitedly waiting for his turn explaining that you must stay out of the sun when you have the solution on or it can make your skin darker than first started.

The reasons for skin bleaching were varied. Michael Jackson was mentioned on numerous occasions with many putting him on a pedestal for leading the way going from black to white. Others said it was part of dancehall culture and that they got on-board with skin bleaching after Dancehall star, Vybz Kartel sang about it in one of his songs. There were a few guys who said they lightened their skin so that their tattoos would stand out more.

A doctor interviewed in the Jamaican documentary said she believes the issue stems from the past and has been ingrained into society. During times of slavery the lighter skinned women were the ones that were chosen to be housemaids, the darker skinned women were sent to work in the fields. As slavery was abolished the lighter skinned black people were the ones to get the better jobs.

I recalled reading an article where Beyonce’s Dad suggests that she wouldn’t have been as successful if she had darker skin and he also admitted that when he was younger he would only date white or light skinned black women who appeared to be white.

These above statements prove that the issue runs a lot deeper than the skin. It opens-up conversations about colourism, culture and how the mainstream media plays a leading role.

Last month I went to see Black Panther and it made me proud to see a big budget film with an ‘almost’ all black cast. I’m hoping that the film positively impacted some of the people that have taken to skin bleaching. It would be great if even one person having watched the film decided to be proud of their dark skin.

I have learnt and am still learning to love my dark skin (it’s a long and ongoing process) and have been fortunate to have not let the fact that I am a darker shade of black stop the life that I have led.

If I was to impart some wisdom on the bullied teenage me to stop her buying that bar of soap. I would have said:

“You are amazing just as you are. In your life you will face obstacles and disadvantages but working on self-love and surrounding yourself with positive role models is key. There will always be people that don’t like you, what matters most is that you like you. You are beautiful. But being happy is more important than being beautiful and the strongest beauty is formed from the inside out.”

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Emma x

Instagram: @emmalouhalliday

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