After generations of colonial rule and apartheid subjugation, academics claim that the residual effects of those past traumas have now manifested themselves in the face of colourism: an identity bias skewed towards the belief that “white is right”.
The term was coined by American author Alice Walker in her 1983 book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, in which she defined colourism as “a form of prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people, based solely on their colour”.
This prevailing skin tone bias has today spawned a multibillion-dollar global skin lightening industry, where skin bleaching creams, skin lightening medical procedures and IV drips are just some of the methods hundreds of thousands of people now use to appear lighter-skinned in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection.
A recent report by the World Health Organisation disclosed that 35% of South Africans use skin lightening products - compared with 77% of Nigerians and 61% of Indians.
In recent years, local celebrities like actress Khanyi Mbau, rapper Mshoza, singer Kelly Khumalo and actress and businesswoman Sorisha Naidoo have all undergone drastic physical transformations as a result of skin lightening procedures.
In an interview last year, Naidoo revealed that the criticism she received from the local Indian community for her dark skin after she won the Miss India South Africa title in 2002, had been a catalyst for her to start lightening her skin.
But the quest to be the fairest of them came at a price for Naidoo.
In 2010, she endorsed a skin lightening product called Pure Perfect, which reputedly assisted with acne-scarring and pigmentation.
However, Naidoo was later forced to admit in a half-page newspaper advert that she had co-developed a “new and improved parfait”, after the original formula for the cream gave her a “very pink, flushed tone”, which also bruised and scarred her face and neck.
Scores of product users also came forward claiming that the cream caused “irreversible damage” to their skin, with some alleging burns and a total breakdown of skin texture as a result of prolonged use.
Unlike Naidoo, however, Mbau has been an outspoken campaigner for skin lightening. She has been receiving glutathione IV drips, intravenous medications administered via a syringe or intravenous catheter, which have become an increasingly popular method of lightening among the A-list celebrity and influencer set locally.
In 2017, Mbau hit back at critics who poked fun at her bleached, pink-toned skin by taking to social media to ask South Africans to accept her as she is.
Sharing a photoshopped picture of Shoprite chicken thighs with her face on one of them, Mbau captioned the picture with the hashtag #pinklivesmattertoo.
When asked why she had resorted to lightening her skin, Mbau responded that “there was something about a woman who looks brighter”.
While she’s denied pressuring other women to subscribe to her own standards of beauty, she’s since claimed: “I’m a pro-aesthetic person in the business of selling beauty.”
Similarly, Khumalo has responded to the backlash over her use of skin bleaching creams in defiant fashion. In one Instagram post, she told her detractors that “Ima bleach until Jesus comes”, proudly accepting criticism that she was chasing the coveted “yellow bone” aesthetic.
But medical experts argue that the true cost of beauty is the health risks associated with the widespread use of lightening and bleaching agents.
According to Professor Ncoza Dlova, head of dermatology at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, “people should not be encouraged to lighten their skin, period”.
“Treatment of dark marks is another challenge altogether that we are aware of particularly in those with black skin and people should consult a dermatologist for such problems and not self-medicate as this is dangerous and may lead to irreversible damage complications.
“It saddens me to see patients with damaged skin and having to tell them: ‘I’m sorry there is nothing I can do to help you.’ It makes me even more sad to realise that patients did not even know the active ingredients of the creams they used nor the complications of such use. Hence our main objective is to get the word out there and inform and educate our consumers so that they can make informed choices.”
According to research conducted by University of KwaZulu-Natal medical experts, 90% of users of skin lightening products are unaware of the complications of the practice - which vary from the irreversible thinning of skin, permanent scar marks and even skin cancer, owing to the cocktail of dangerous and often unregulated chemicals found in some of these products, namely mercury, phenol, steroids and hydroquinone.
“For its part, the European Union has banned since 2001 the use of hydroquinone in the manufacture of cosmetics. Yet, many depigmenting products would be manufactured in Europe before being exported to Africa.”
The fight against street drugs should include the corticosteroids used for cosmetic purposes.
“We all need to work together in a concerted effort to fight this scourge which is beginning to reach epidemic levels, not only in South Africa but globally, in the rest of Africa, the Middle East, India and other countries,” Dlova urged.
Ayanda Tshabalala, a KwaZulu-Natal academic, said in spite of strides being made to empower South Africans post-democracy, the country seemed to be regressing when it came to issues of race and identity.
“In countries such as South Africa, in an era of post-apartheid, it is perhaps surprising to find the continued use of skin bleaching practices when the country is seemingly making efforts to support the empowerment of black African women, particularly through initiatives such as black economic empowerment and affirmative action.”
Tshabalala conducted a study on skin lightening for her master’s degree dissertation which investigated the controversial notion of racial capital among modern, young African women and how racial capital is influenced by the commodification of their cultures.
“Women in this study were of the perception that men are more attracted to women with lighter skin tones than those with darker skin tones. A lighter skin tone therefore becomes the prestige complexion that men desire.”