My toxic love affair with skin lightening creams
On a hot summer day in 2003, I’m making my way home to the Battersea neighborhood in south London after chilling with friends at the local outdoor pool. The sun has painted my usually coffee-coloured skin a deeper shade of mahogany.
I take a detour to my local black hair and beauty shop. “I’ll have my usual,” I tell the shopkeeper. He hands me two bottles of what I called my “creamy crack” – skin bleaching creams with hydroquinone, a chemical ingredient that has been banned in Europe, Australia and Japan since 2001 due to high amounts of mercury. (How the shopkeeper attained them, I never cared to ask. I do know he seemed to have a never-ending supply.)
My toxic love affair with skin lighteners began when I was 14. It was a tradition I picked up from the women in my Afro-Caribbean family. I would watch my mother, who is more fair-skinned than I am, scour the aisles of black hair and beauty stores for her favourite bleaching creams. Deep down, I think she knew it was wrong. But like many other first-generation African women of similar age, she referred to her bleaching routine as “toning”, insinuating benign dark spot removal, and only on her face. Over time, I watched her use it on her entire body.
In middle school, I would watch all the boys fawn over lighter-skinned or mixed-race girls, with their Eurocentric features, loose curls and baby hair styled meticulously into swirls and loops. Then I would come home and watch mixed-race models pursued by dark-skinned rappers in MTV Base rap videos.
Even to darker-skinned men, darker girls never seemed to win.
The message was drummed into me: your worth as a woman means nothing if you have a darker pigment. I was already getting viciously bullied at school for my weight, and being darker on top of that made it that much worse, to the point where I would make excuses to stay home. For years, I prayed for God to lighten my skin every single day.
The Asian shopkeeper at my local beauty store had given me unsolicited recommendations for his best products for a while, so as soon as I was old enough to buy them without my mum, I began the painstaking process of trying to fade my pigment.
I rubbed the lotion three times a day on to my face and body. I remember the harsh, metallic scent that reminded me of ammonia and made me smell like a chemical lab. I remember the dense, sticky texture that took forever to rub into my skin. I remember waiting, motionless, for 10 minutes to let it dry.
Later, it made my skin sensitive to sunlight and I had to wear a strong SPF cream. It left a faint purplish coating on my skin, which was already taking on a dull, greyish hue – a side-effect of the hydroquinone. I ran through bottles of product – each cost nearly $5 and lasted about three weeks.
The message was drummed into me: your worth as a woman means nothing if you have a darker pigment
I slowly saw the very gradual lightening of my skin, which gave me a sense of jubilation. But I also felt irritation and inflammation on my forearms and shins, and my cheeks and chin became itchy and flaky. After about 18 months of bleaching, I had to stop. My natural pigment slowly returned, giving me physical relief but also leaving me with grief – I was upset that I had to let go of achieving the skin tone I dreamt of.
In 2013, when I was 23, I spent a few months in Harlem. I noticed overwhelmingly positive attention and compliments about my skin tone from white men, which was interesting and new to me – this didn’t often happen in the UK. But just like in the UK, on billboards and other advertisements, even in this predominantly black neighbourhood, I saw nothing but light-skinned women as the embodiment of beauty and class. While I didn’t see any skin lightening practices in Harlem, it made me sad to see that across the diaspora, having lighter skin was still seen as superior.
Realizing my skin wasn’t desirable in the UK or in the US, or in west Africa, I felt disjointed, as if I didn’t belong anywhere. I began to internalise those feelings and develop low self-esteem. I felt like I could never possibly be loved, admired or desired because of my skin.
When I returned to the UK, I knew I had to start the slow journey towards self-love. I started following darker-skinned beauty bloggers and models on social media, and by seeing these beautiful women love and embrace their skin so publicly, it gave me the strength to see the beauty and power in my own dark skin. I began to fall in love with it.
‘People don’t even look at me’: eight black women discuss politics of light and dark skin – videoDeep mahogany. Dark chocolate. I love how I glisten when it’s sunny. I love how golden highlighter bounces off of it. I love the way the skin on my body accentuates my beige stretch marks. I love how it accentuates my west African features, like my nose and cheekbones.
As I grew more comfortable in my skin, I started experimenting with brighter colours and bolder patterns in fashion. Yellows, oranges and fuschias, in particular, look incredible against darker skin tones, and I’m always partial to a bit of colour blocking.
Looking back, I feel a deep sense of pain and regret. I wish I could tell teenage Stephanie that she was blessed with beautiful skin, and not to try to change it. She is worthy and valued as a darker-skinned woman.
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