Lightening, Toning, Whitening, or Bleaching – the more crass and politically correct noncompliant name – is the act of transforming one’s skin color from a darker to a lighter shade through the use of the product. Okay, you probably didn’t need the definition.


Beverly Naya

Skin is a documentary by Beverly Naya, a Nigerian actress, debuted on Netflix and started a conversation about skin lightening. The outstanding quality of “SKIN” borders on how it touches on the Human angle of what goes on in the mind of a typical bleaching product user. For as long as I can remember, starting a conversation about bleaching has been difficult; especially with those who do it. The difficulty in being able to speak about bleaching is because, like most addictive behaviors, bleaching isn’t just a superficial behavior but, most times an expression or manifestation of deeper, more mentally and emotionally charged thought patterns, happening in the mind or life of the person.

As a matter of fact, bleaching has been so stigmatized that the word has had to take on less emotionally triggering aliases (toning, lightening, whitening). Over the years, I have gone around the proverbial bush wondering how best to broach the topic without stepping on toes, because the truth is I, being a product of an environment where bleaching was frowned upon and viewed primarily as an enterprise for women seeking the attention of men especially sex workers or, loose women and, at best ignorant women, couldn’t talk about it without oozing of judgment (you can see that our very act betrays our deepest convictions).

Part of the reason why the conversation about bleaching becomes sensitive is because of some of these arguments that you have probably heard.

  1. My life, My body, my choice. It’s not anybody’s business.
  2. It’s my money.
  3. How is it different from the use of makeup, use of weaves and wigs, or any beauty enhancement practices(s)?

Beyonce and Kelly Rowland | Photo: The Voice Archives

Bleaching, like most vices, can only be addressed as a problem when the individual in question acknowledges it as a problem.

Personally, I think that since this cut-off point where we decide if bleaching is good or bad is dicey and not as monochromatic in definition, then the individual must decide for themselves by asking the following questions; “Why am I doing this?” “For whom am I doing this?” “Is this major alteration to my appearance going to fix a problem with me or, society around me?” “Is it worth it?” “10-30 years going forward will I still feel the same way about this?” “Is there something else I can do to fix the way I or society views me without altering my appearance drastically?”

With these questions, the likely honest answers may deter one from bleaching (or sadly NOT). So much has been said about bleaching but can one actually say a lot about bleaching without pointing fingers at its principal precursor Colorism? I highly doubt it.

Colorism is the primary culprit behind this very personal vice. Colorism, which is a form of discrimination against a person based on skin tone, is sadly a consistent problem that discriminates against those with a darker skin tone and gives privilege to those with a lighter skin tone, even if they’re all from the same race, country, tribe or even family. Colorism both ignites and is the catalyst that feeds the bleaching industry which keeps growing as the years go by. According to Statistics MRC, the Global Skin Lightening Products Market was accounted for $4075.00 million in 2017 and is expected to reach $8011.17 million by 2026 growing at a CAGR of 7.8% during the forecast period.

It seems like most times those who bleach their skin to a lighter shade are simply people who have succumbed to the pressure of Colorism. It can also be said that bleaching is mostly a response to the experience of Colorism.


Bobrisky before and after | Photo:

To be honest, someone seated in the center of society’s Colorism pressure oven probably couldn’t care less what they do to get ahead at this point of decision-making. For some such as Idris Okuneye aka Bob Risky, Nigeria’s popular crossdresser and lightening creams seller, in his honest account on the documentary, “SKIN” said the decision to bleach was literally economic albeit mixed with cross-dressing, he claims he had to do it for the shock factor and attention, which in today’s highly visual social media world, is important. More like a publicity stunt which he admittedly regrets starting in the first place due to the tasking nature of maintaining his now acquired “light” complexion.

Watching “SKIN” was quite a turn-around point for me in this conversation and for the first time the scales finally fell off and I could see that yes, while bleaching may still be an outward expression of deeper issues, I could finally feel and speak from empathy and, understand – if not fully, at least a bit of what goes on in the complex mental, and emotional struggle of self-acceptance. For the first time bleaching became not just an act, but a journey, not just an expression of defiance but an ongoing mental tussle. I was reminded that until you’ve heard the story from the horse’s mouth and looked at the panoramic view, you still don’t know enough to make judgments.

By understanding technical, cultural, societal, and individually unique angles to the problem of Colorism, I was educated, which ends up being the primary culprit that triggers this rather personal vice.

Listening to Bob speak honestly about not loving one’s self enough and the desire for attention as a trigger for bleaching and his regret of starting in the first place, sparked such sympathy in me that I saw for the first time what social media doesn’t really tell about the person behind the pictures and short, mostly controversial publicity videos.

It is okay to say Colorism is to blame for the inadequacy of dark-skinned people. I mean that feeling that says ‘as a dark person, I am, actually not enough because I am on a journey towards achieving a certain standard of light shade skin tone.’

To be continued…

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