Skin complexion has been an issue for many people of colour, and not just for women.
And according to a new local study, men are just as likely as women to use creams for their skin complexion.
Around one in eight Black, Indian and Coloured students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) said they used skin lighteners, despite being aware of the dangers of some of the products.
The study had 400 respondents from the university.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, lead researcher Dr Farzana Rahiman, from the medical bioscience department, said these products are used by 10% of men and 12% of women in the study, which is published in the International Journal of Women's Dermatology.
“To my knowledge, this result [about men's use] is one of the first to be reported in SA,” Rahiman said.
In this South African study, the prevalence of Indian women using skin lighteners was 15%, followed by black African women at 13% and coloured women at 12%.
About three-quarters of the students said they were motivated by fashion and what they thought was appealing to the opposite sex, and almost half said they were influenced by family and friends to aim for the “yellow bone” look.
The label “yellow bone” refers to black people who are relatively light-skinned, and it might be used to show approval or praise.
Previous global studies also showed that women are more likely than men to practice skin lightening.
The desire for fair skin has become a worldwide phenomenon, especially in countries where dark skin people are the majority population.
Considering the serious health concerns associated with certain skin lightening products, many African countries including South Africa have legislated policies to ban the sale of skin lightning products.
However, banning these products did not stop women from changing their skin. The rapidly growing market for these beauty products has led to the industry finding alternatives.
In India, it is often argued that the preference for light skin predates British colonialism and is evident as far back as the Vedas, a collection of hymns and other religious texts composed in India centuries before the birth of Christ.
But at the same time the desire for light skin in India cannot also be divorced from the caste system, the country’s north-south divide, the impact of colonialism and the manner in which capitalism has exploited these prejudices via the beauty industry.
In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Georgia called skin colour distinction “a well-kept secret” in black communities.
“The hue of one’s skin,” they wrote, “tends to have a psychological effect on the self-esteem of African-Americans”.
Celebrities have done little to help with the belief that “lighter is prettier” of their skin. In South Africa, popular personalities like Khanyi Mbau and Mshoza openly admitted to using skin lightening treatments to change how they look, and many others have been accused of following the trend.
While this may seem like a benefit to others, TV presenter Pearl Thusi has trended on social media and has developed thick skin because she has been accused of advancing in her career because she is light skinned.
In an emotional interview with media personality and actress Khanyi Mbau on Behind The Story on BET, Pearl once broke down when speaking about the hate she still gets in the industry and from members of the public.
“Because they are light-skinned that's why they are where they are. Yes, there are privileges, but let's also look around who's giving those privileges to them and why they exist in the first place.
“You can't take those people because they are easy to abuse and they're in your community and they are accessible and they say, 'Yes because you're light-skinned she thinks she's better'. No, let's go back to the source on why we have an identity crisis and why we look different and why we are the way we are,” she said.
Devan Moonsamy is the CEO of the I Can Help Africa Foundation Training Institute and specialises in diversity training in a 702 Radio podcast.
He says that phrases like “beautiful for a dark girl” or “Yellow bone” perpetuate light-skinned privilege and create damaging social ideals of beauty.
“Yellow bone” is the contentious slang term often used to describe light-skinned black women in South Africa.
Moonsamy says people need to raise greater awareness about the negative effects of colourism, which include a rise in harmful skin-lightening products and procedures.
He adds that society needs to promote self-confidence, and positive dialogue around skin tone and authenticity.
Having more conversations about colourism will encourage people to challenge social biases, Moonsamy explains.
Colourism is a prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic group.
Colonialism has had a lasting impact, with lots of the invasions “done by people who were usually lighter skin, like the British”, says Dr Ritumbra Manuvie, who teaches human rights law and has researched discrimination in South Asia.
“That ingrained a thought that if you're lighter, you're somehow superior.”
The caste system – a complex social hierarchy system – has furthered the idea of lighter being better in society.
“Those in the higher caste or top of the power structure would often be lighter in colour. With marriages, the average requirement is that the bride should be fair,” said Manuvie.
Overall, 77% of participants of the study conducted at UWC reported that they were aware of the negative effects of skin lightening but still chose to do it.
The skin lighting industry is not going anywhere soon, and neither is the issue of people of colour’s skin complex. It’s all rooted in the ideals set by the beauty industry and media influences on the definition of beauty.
This article was first published in the Saturday Insider, Aug 28