By Maryam Sheikh Abdikadir
When I was growing up, we had a past time gauging our beauty score. There were five things in three to look out for and a total of fifteen marks to compete for. If you got above 10, then you were considered beautiful. One of the marks was for being light skinned (literally whiteness). Now for a community that places so much emphasis on being ‘white’ to qualify to be beautiful, it is no brainer to observe the proliferation of cosmetics and the aptly named ‘beauty’ shops in most areas in Kenya inhabited by the Somali community, including refugee camps.
The products are used for whitening, brightening and lightening especially for the face and hands. These terminologies are a camouflage for the bleaching menace the practice is becoming.
Some of the products used are whitening creams whose ingredients are harmful like mercury. Others are medicinal ointment that are for skin inflammations, some so potent and for severe skin inflammations, yet applied to the face not for any curative measure but to lighten the skin pigmentation or ‘whiten’ as is the terminology oft used. The potential health hazards of these products are clearly labeled on the containers. Not many users read these labels. Fewer understand the hazards.
The common slogan goes “marja iyo mugdi baa madoow” (loosely translated as ‘‘it’s only the lazy and the dark night that are black’’). While this is enough advertisement for the ‘beauty’ shops and their ‘whitening’ products, it also implies cultural pressure at play, tilting the beauty angle towards the light skinned. You have to be ‘white’ to be considered beautiful so the legend goes.
The assumption has always been that young females use these ‘whitening’ creams to attract men for marriage. However a spot check on these ‘beauty’ centers reveals a shocking reality that men and older women are now joining the bandwagon in droves.
Are men and boys ‘bleaching’ themselves to attract women? Some teenagers I spoke to infer that women and girls are becoming more demanding and the conditionality change with the times. This tend to discount the fact that there are more women than men in the world and hence natural to imagine that the law of supply and demand will dictate the scramble for the ‘few’ men and ‘justify’ females resorting to all manner of risks to attract men. It is however alarming and many women discuss in hushed voices the joining of the ‘whitening’ race by the men.
Skin lightening or whitening products have a number of documented serious side effects. One of the side effects is reduced skin pigmentation and thinning of skin, the reason why most users have protruding veins on the hands and the face is full of lines and veins. With regular use it makes users look much older than their actual age, with shriveled and wrinkled skin. Some of the products have been known to contain harmful substances that cause kidney disease and skin cancer. Mercury is a common substance in most whitening creams and ointments and “….Inorganic mercury exposure is associated with rashes, skin discoloration, scaring, secondary bacterial and fungal infections, and even renal impairment and damage to the nervous system.” (MinnPost 08/21/2013).
Many of the anti-inflammatory creams result in ‘excess’ growth of hair. It is noticeable to see lots of fine hair on the moustache and the hared (hair on the side-cheeks of the face that flows from the beard) of the products users. Hairs on the arms and on the hared, called xaad (vellus hair), is a beauty thing in the Somali community and this makes bleaching attractive to users as it is said to enhance the chances of becoming xaadley (one endowed with the vellus hair). But when this hair appears on the moustache it is a serious put-off for the men folk who were to be attracted. One other apparent side effect is the cost.
The money women and men use on these potentially hazardous cosmetics is substantial. Because of the cost involved and the small sizes of the products, it is prohibitive to buy them in bulk to apply to the whole body, hence the infamous coca-cola-fanta pigmentation.
The tragedy is the so-called ‘make-ups’ result in other adverse unintended consequences. Instead of attracting the opposite sex, most users are attracting negative name calling. On the social scene the consequences are dire and becoming more frequent. Young men are questioning whether or not the girl they have an interest in ‘whitens’ herself. This could potentially stigmatize even the naturally lighter skinned girls, even though it is much easier to differentiate the natural and the unnatural skin tones. Anecdotal stories exist of how a bride was asked by the husband to remove the costume she was wearing. The hands, face and legs were much lighter than the neck, down to the knees, and she looked she had a body costume. It is said she was divorced. Others talk of women or girls who are unable to come to their sunny home counties as they are said to be unable to withstand the heat. They will melt at the slightest exposure to heat.
There are scarier stories doing the rounds in most urban centers of the social consequences of using some ‘beauty’ products, but these do not seem to scare the masses. Many are joining this race oblivious of its health hazards. While seated in a salon in one urban center and discussing the issue, a lady customer seated across in a face veil (niqaab), removes it to reveal scarred and spot filled face. She was in anguish and regretted destroying her natural skin. “But nobody ever told me what awaited me, nobody ever warned me. Many others are joining the craze daily. We need more information and education on the side effects of these products” she concludes, tears welling in her eyes.
This is a practice that is done by many the world over. Ms. Amira Adawe, a county department of Public Health educator at St. Paul-Ramsey said this whitening craze is not only confined to the black race. She says it is widely used by Asians, the Hispanics and even the White Americans. This holds true for the Somali community too, where even those with naturally fairer skin colour are using these products to ‘whiten’ themselves even further. It shows an underlying issue, much more than wanting a fair or ‘white’ skin. It is a self-esteem issue that warrants discussion to mitigate the serious potential health hazard (carcinogenic menace). Manufacturers and ‘beauticians’ may be preying on these poor souls who require counseling, not whitening products.
Public education on the effects of cosmetics is urgently required. The natural beauty is under siege and urgent intervention is a necessity before young African queens destroy their beautiful nature.
The County governments need to prioritize health education and put lots of efforts in confidence boosting, self-esteem building and marriage counselling. Religious scholars need to particularly emphasize on the teaching of the Holy Books to discourage these harmful practices. Islam for example, defines beauty not as the colour of your skin but as your piety, one’s good deeds and conduct towards other fellow beings. It prohibits changing of nature. Islam has placed certain reasonable limitations in regards to adornment and personal beautification. Changing creation and causing harm is beyond this limit. There is also deception involved which Islam prohibits. Changing one’s color to attract a prospective husband or wife is deception. Islam prohibits anything that harms the health of a person. A guiding principle in Islam is to not cause fitna or damage with our hands.
Islam does not prohibit but strongly encourages general cleanness and routine skin care practices (cleansing, toning, moisturizing e.t.c.) provided no harsh and harmful products are used. It is important to know that this routine skin care gives any woman a younger organic glowing skin that is evenly toned. This is the natural beauty most users are yearning for!
A word from a mother talking to a woman who thought of joining the ‘whitening’ craze: ‘’You are beautiful the way you are. The Almighty, who is the ultimate designer, knows best what color suits you. He chose that dark tone for you because that is the color that brings out the best of you. Hold your head high and know you have the best color, one that is not on sale even. That shows just how expensive it is and how blessed you are to possess it’’.
Community leaders and elders need to urgently address cultural interpolations and the beauty of the African skin before we experience explosion of cancers and other diseases our fragile health systems cannot accommodate.
Maryam is a social scientist and a development practitioner who worked with the UN for many years on socio-economic issues.