Yellow Fever: Harmful habit or new frontier in identity dysphoria?
Ijebu Ode, Ogun, Nigeria
|A young woman with bleached skin. Album cover for “Yellow Fever”
by Fela Kuti, 1976. Courtesy: Ghariokwu Lemi
In 1976, when Fela Kuti, the late Afrobeat legend, released Yellow Fever, the hit masterpiece in which he passionately decried in his powerful, ringing voice, You dey bleach o, you dey bleach, African mother . . . stupid thing, yeye thing, ugly thing. . . you dey bleach o, you dey bleach!, Nigeria had been independent of British colonial rule for sixteen years. Depicted on the record’s album cover is a small tube of “Soyoyo Cream,” “soyoyo” being a Yoruba colloquial expression loosely translating to “bright [and] yellow.” Next to the tube is a young, light-skinned Nigerian woman with dark patches on her face, neck and chest, and, untouched by the bleaching cream, entire swathes of the rest of her body in its original dark complexion. Fela seems to have her on his mind as he sings: You go yellow pass yellow / You go catch mustache for face / You go get your double colour / Your yansh [buttocks] go black like coal / You sef go think say you dey fine / Who say you fine?/ Na lie, you no fine at all, at all, na lie!
A 2011 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products regularly but makes no mention of men, who also use skin lighteners in large numbers.¹ Containing mercury, glutathione, and steroids, these compounds, when used over long periods of time, have been linked to ochronosis (“a form of hyperpigmentation that causes the skin to turn a dark purple shade”),2 thinning and damage of skin (so that in cases of injury the required stitches cannot be applied),3 and in extreme cases liver or kidney cancers and leukemia. Yet these products continue to attract and retain users despite the many associated risks not only to themselves but also to unborn children.⁴ Nothing dampens the ardor of these users: not increasing government regulation and policing of the skin whitening industry, not banning these products from marketplaces, not loud and frequent public information campaigns, not even persistent negative societal reactions or the ridicule and lampooning issuing forth from such quarters as Fela.
Some commentators have suggested that women bleach their skin for practical, economic reasons—to obtain and keep better jobs, to attain a higher standard of living, to secure a higher quality of life.⁵ Light-skinned women, they say, often stand a better chance of favorable consideration for certain, and in particular, customer-facing positions in businesses: sales and marketing departments, movie and entertainment industries, reception desks, teller stations in banks, checkout counters in supermarkets. Others have claimed that women bleach their skin because they are pressured to by society. It is supposed that these women are motivated not so much by a need for money and the advantages it confers, but by a need for emotional security, by a yearning to firmly establish themselves in love. These women, it is believed, have concluded that men, in seeking wives, favor light-skinned women, leaving women who crave love and desire to have a husband no other alternative but to help themselves along with a skin lightener.² And yet another point of view postulates that women who bleach their skin do so because they simply cannot stop having once begun.⁶ In one word, they have become addicted to their new appearance.
These perspectives are not only valid, they are also true, and reflect the ever-present specter of Nigeria’s colonial past. During the colonial regime and as power changed hands in the country’s transition to independence, the Nigerians best positioned to advance themselves were those who seemed, acted, and looked the most British.⁷ The rapid globalization that then followed on the heels of colonialism did not just bring Nigeria—and all of Africa—into greater contact with the rest of the world, it also granted it unprecedented exposure to Western culture, leaving the average Nigerian to aspire not only to Western ideals of success, but perhaps inescapably, also to Western ideals of beauty.
Yet these arguments do not constitute an understanding of the scourge of skin bleaching across the African continent that is sufficient or encompassing. For if they did, how would we account for the large numbers of men who bleach their skin? Or for the rich married women who only adopted the practice after marriage? It would appear, on closer inspection, that skin bleaching has a different and deeper cause than the need for economic, emotional, or sociocultural security, or the inability to discontinue an entrenched habit. It would appear that skin bleaching is the manifestation of an identity dysphoria, a deep dissatisfaction with one’s natural complexion, an internal identification as a different complexion and a conviction, often longstanding and unyielding, that one should have been born looking lighter than one naturally is.
In a social context in which people do not usually feel comfortable admitting to bleaching their skin, much less speaking out about their motives, the candor of one man, who, speaking about his decision to bleach his skin, said, “I pray every day and I ask God, ‘God, why did you make me black?’ I don’t like being black. I don’t like black skin,”² is not only noteworthy, but might hold important clues about the root cause of a problem that has received only cosmetic consideration so far. Perhaps the solution to the skin bleaching crisis does not lie only in sensitizing campaigns and inevitably superficial, even if well-intentioned, attempts at redefining beauty ideals, but also, and perhaps more urgently, in having the appropriate medical agencies identify the problem as an identity dysphoria, label it as such, and work concertedly to develop and apply the pertinent treatments.
- WHO (2011). Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: Mercury In Skin Lightening Products. Geneva, World Health Organization, Public Health and Environment. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/mercury_flyer.pdf.
- BBC (2013). Africa: Where black is not really beautiful. Johannesburg. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-20444798.
- Chisholm, N. (2002) Fade to White. The Village Voice. Retrieved from https://www.villagevoice.com/2002/01/22/fade-to-white/.
- Findlay, S. (2018). Skin bleaching in Africa: An ‘addiction’ with risks. The Jakarta Post/Agence France-Presse. Lagos, Nigeria. Retrieved from https://www.thejakartapost.com/amp/life/2018/08/10/skin-bleaching-in-africa-an-addiction-with-risks.html.
- Brown, Ola (2019). Banning skin bleaching products won’t work as long as fair skin is linked with beauty and success. CNN. Retrieved from https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2019/01/15/health/banning-bleaching-products-in-africa/index.html.
- Adamu, N. and Said, A. (2019). Skin Bleaching: The Desire for Lighter Skin. Wellcome Collection. Retrieved from https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/XJENpBAAAHUXJHC_.
- Hall, Ronald E. (2016). The bleaching Syndrome: Manifestation Of A Post-Colonial Pathology Among African Women. African Journal of Social Work, Volume 6, Number 2. Retrieved from https://www.ajol.info/index.php/ajsw/article/download/150292/139866.
OYINADE OSISANYA is a writer who lives in Nigeria.
Spring 2019 | Sections | Anthropology