You can find bleaching products in Nigeria in just about any beauty store. In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) cited that approximately 77 per cent of women in Nigeria bleach their skin. I was one of them. This is how I got there and, eventually, how I quit for good.
Skin bleaching entails using creams, oral supplements, or injections to lighten your skin’s natural complexion. Sometimes it is expressed as skin-lightening or skin toning. Interchanged in a bid to make it seem less harmful, but really, they are on the same spectrum if you ask me. The significant differences amongst them could be the bleaching chemicals’ intensity. Depending on what type of product you use, you could lighten your skin between 2 to 15 shades lighter. Fifteen usually results in one getting this grey-like undertone, like you’ve ridden your skin of its natural undertones.
I believe that skin bleaching is a product of colonialism and a remnant of its harms. Our ancestors under colonial rule experienced conditioning that made them think their skin wasn’t beautiful, that they must attain white perfection. This way of thinking has been inherited from generation to generation. Consequently, it has now rippled through Nigerian society. As a child, I remember that being “fair” or light-skinned was affiliated with beauty. As a result, dark-skinned women and girls were rarely considered beautiful.
I like to define my skin colour as “peanut butter.” I can’t say that I experienced the discrimination surrounding being dark-skinned. However, I also didn’t share the privileges of being fair-skinned. One summer in 2014, I spent some time with a friend who was an expert at skin bleaching. At the time, I was battling with a lot of skin discoloration. So she suggested using a few of her products to clear it out, and I agreed without much hesitation.
A few weeks after using these products, I noticed the difference in my skin. My hyperpigmentation cleared up, but I was also now about 3 to 4 shades lighter. I liked what I saw in the mirror and did everything within my ability to prevent myself from reverting to my original shade. I would avoid the sun and always ensured that I had products stocked so I wouldn’t run out. I made sure my routine was tight and consistent so that my entire skin colour was even. I remember getting a lot of compliments and comments from people about my new complexion. My skin was referred to as looking “fresh” and ‘glowy.” Although some were suspicious and would question if I was lightening my skin, I never admitted to it.
After a while, It felt like a burden, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the routine forever. I dreaded that I couldn’t enjoy summer outdoor activities. I was always running from the sun to prevent myself from getting darker. I experienced a lot of shame and didn’t share with anyone what I was doing. I knew something about it wasn’t right.
Additionally, I worried about any potential health damages these bleaching products could do to my body. I was also really tired of the routine, even when it slowed down significantly. Nonetheless, I wasn’t able to quit cold turkey. Not just yet.
One fine morning in the fall of 2020, I had an ‘aha” moment, you could say, which gave me the final push I needed to quit cold turkey. Like any other day, I was getting dressed for work and wanted some white noise to accompany me. I was browsing through my YouTube looking to make a selection when I saw the video of Beyoncé’s Brown Skin Girl had come out. It was amazing to see Black women of so many shapes and shades being celebrated with the focus more around the darkest of us.
I had heard other songs celebrating Brown Skin, such as “Brown Skin” by India Arie; however, it didn’t pull me in as much. Perhaps I wasn’t exposed enough to the discrimination brown-skinned women had experienced to appreciate it being celebrated. It could also be that it just wasn’t a song of my time. However, when Beyonce’s rendition came out, I was older and more informed about prejudices brown-skinned women experienced and continue to experience. As a result, I could relate to and appreciate our celebration a lot more. More specifically, being celebrated by a light-skinned woman. She highlighted the richness and uniqueness of our skin, “Skin just like pearls, I’ll never trade you for anybody else.”
I came to this realization while in the middle of creaming my skin with the bleaching products as I typically did. I paused for a moment and thought about why I was trying to change myself from the same thing someone else was celebrating. I came to the acceptance and actual realization that my skin was beautiful, unique, and shouldn’t be traded for anything else. From that day on, I decided not to use any bleaching products on my skin. I made sure I lounged in the sun to get that extra tan and haven’t looked back since then.
I’ve chosen to share my experience because I am confident that this issue is too rampant amongst men and women of colour—not just Nigerians. I want Black women, in particular, to believe that they are beautiful just as they are. We were taught to hate ourselves; now it’s time to unlearn and realize that our Black is so beautiful, rich, and glistening.
“Brown skin girl, your skin just like pearls, the best about the world, never trade you for anybody else.”