Today, about 77% of Nigerians, 27% of Senegalese and 35% of South African women bleach their skin. Women of color take risks in their quest for lighter skin: Chemicals like mercury and hydroquinone in these products may cause lasting skin discoloration, damage to eyes, kidneys and lungs. When used by pregnant women, it may even lead to birth defects. It’s a public health crisis, according to the World Health Organization. Indian caste-based discrimination was outlawed in 1950, but dark-skinned people, both men and women are still persecuted unfairly.
Fair skin remains a distinguishing social factor associated with purity and elite status. From beauty standards to career opportunities and socioeconomic statuses, fair skin tones have been idealized so much that people are led — whether consciously or subconsciously — to attain the “desired” skin color, regardless of age. Colorism is the tendency to assign individuals to a racial category based on the color of their skin — specifically, biased towards lighter skin.
When she was sixteen years old, U.S. congresswoman Rep. Ilhan Omar overheard a boy at a soccer game explain to her friend that she would be more beautiful if her skin color were lighter — like Ilhan’s. “I was embarrassed that I was used in the conversation to make my friend feel less beautiful,” she recalled as she described the painful memory in the House of Representatives to tackle colorism in America. Though she was only a high school student at the time, it motivated her to push forward with initiatives aimed toward abolishing colorism.
“In my own community, many immigrant women have used creams and soaps to try to attain these beauty standards. It’s important for us not to only condemn this message but also to understand the lasting health impacts.” Rep. Ilhan Omar stated in an interview from the New York Times’ In Her Words series after speaking in Congress, clearly trained on dispelling the cookie-cutter definition of beauty and backing up the risks posed by methods and procedures that are used to attain it.
Colorism is handled differently by each culture. In Asia, colorism exists more as a status symbol than a racial one where the paleness of a person is synonymous with nobility and wealth. Nevertheless, it only further posits that "whiter is better" and, by extension, serves to propagate the inverse as true: that "darker is worse." That is what needs to change. Having darker skin does not make anyone less competent or beautiful.
Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced her skin-lightening amendment last year, after hearing women in her community share stories of skin discoloration and long-lasting health effects of skin-whitening procedures and products. Activists like Amira Adawe, founder of the Beautywell Project, mentioned that this problem of idealizing light skin doesn’t get talked about as much as it should and that so many carry shame around using these products, pointing out the importance of destigmatizing this issue.
When Adawe was working as a health educator at the Ramsey County Department of Public Health, she bought 27 skin-lightening products from local Somali and Hmong stores to be tested by the Minnesota Department of Health. The testing revealed dangerously high levels of mercury in 11 out of the 27 products that were readily available at local shops.
Following Adawe’s research, The Minnesota Department of Health released a warning. Shop owners were ordered to stop selling the products but many owners ultimately ignored the warnings and kept stocking the products.
Adawe said there was little official pushback to this attitude: “The agency wasn’t proactive about going into stores and enforcing the regulations.” However, Adawe remained persistent. In November 2019, Adawe brought the petition to Amazon’s offices in Shakopee, accompanied by a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio. This strategy worked with Amazon, removing the products from their website. Last year, Adawe and her supporters successfully advocated for legislative funding from the Minnesota State Legislature for $200,000 to a two-year pilot program, Young Women’s Wellness and Leadership Initiative (YWWLI), designed to raise public awareness about the issue.
Through advocacy and activism, Adawe explained that Beautywell works to upend colorism. One powerful way to do that is to educate young people about the dangers of skin lightening and about colorism’s long and damaging history.
Education about the issue of skin-lightening and its adverse effects, combined with advocacy work in the greater community, provides hope to change colorist views and end risky methods taken to attain light skin. Although the changes may not occur instantly, it is not impossible to see a positive outcome in the near future. It needs to be embedded in society that every skin color is beautiful!