Dahaba Ali Hussen talks about colourism and how to battle shade bias

The skin bleaching epidemic: how can we put an end to toxic colourism in the UK?

Shade bias revolves around the preferential treatment of people with a lighter skin tone - and writer Dahaba Ali Hussen thinks it’s time we addressed it. 

What does the summer mean to you? For thousands of Britons, it will mean basking in sunshine, trying to achieve a golden tan. But for every person who wants to darken their skin tone, there is a person who is desperately trying to lighten theirs.

For some members of ethnic minority communities, a darker skin tone – during summer or otherwise – remains a point of contention.

The Somali community in the UK is a relatively new one compared to other ethnic minorities: indeed, most Somali people came to UK via secondary immigration in the early Nineties after they fled the Civil War. I, like many others, spent the majority of my formative years growing up in a large and connected faction of the Somali diaspora here in London. And I distinctly remember being told by members of my immediate and extended family not to spend too much time in direct sunlight as I will run the risk of becoming “darker” or “looking like coal”.

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The words stung so much that, when I was a child, I spent my summers hiding in the shade, watching as my peers played seemingly carefree in the sunshine. It made me feel distinctly aware of my overall appearance, and I remember feeling something like a sense of pride whenever someone referred to my complexion in a favourable way. “You have a beautiful colour Dahaba, you are light-skinned like your mother,” they would say, and I would smile in response.

Of course, this type of language had long been normalised in my household and in the homes of many others in the Somali community, where a woman or a young girl’s beauty was, partly, characterised by the pigmentation of her skin. “She has beautiful features, but she is quite dark-skinned.” People would make these comments casually in conversation around dinner tables. And we would accept them as normal.

Now I know that this type of prejudice is called colourism. That it’s a form of shade bias that revolves around the preferential treatment of people with a lighter skin tone within and between ethnic groups. And that it is still prevalent in the UK, even now: only this week it was revealed British school children are whitening their skin with make-up to avoid being bullied or racially abused at school, according to charity NSPCC.

Colourism and race

Colourism and race have gone hand in hand for many generations now and it’s an epidemic that is common in Africa and South Asia. In many ethnic communities, such as my own, a lighter skin tone is often the desired ‘look’, thanks to the westernised standards of beauty that are perpetuated in mainstream media.

In most cases, colourism only applies to women and it’s a way of perpetuating idealised forms of beauty. Sociologist Meeta Rani Jha argues a woman’s physical attractiveness, the colour of her skin and her youth have “accrued capital”, just as darker skin colour and hair texture have “devalued feminine currency”.

Skin bleaching products

Google the word colourism and articles answering questions such as “How do I bleach my skin?” and “How can I lighten my skin tone?” appear right at the top of the results. And the truth is that there are more than a handful of companies selling skin bleaching products. Somewhat disturbingly, the use of these products is shockingly common: a World Health Organisation study has revealed that that 61%of women in India are using skin lightening products, 40% of Chinese women and in Nigeria, that figure sits at a staggering 77%.  

Some dermatologists refuse to cosmetically lighten their clients’ skin, despite the demand for it. Dr Mukta Sachdev worries about the safety of her clients and says that she “practices on evidence-based dermatology and there’s not enough literature supporting the use of injectable glutathione”. Which is a form of skin bleaching that is legal in most countries.

There has always appeared to be something of a social paradox in my community when it comes to skin bleaching products. If a woman uses them, then she is seen to be vacuous and ‘fake’. However, if she refrains from bleaching her skin, then she will find herself resigned to the “unattractive” category of a darker-skinned woman.

Either way, she cannot win.  

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The side-effects of skin bleaching

There are serious known and proven side-effects to skin-bleaching: lightening your skin using chemical bleaching can lead to irreversible damage such as the thinning of skin, scarring and kidney, liver or nerve damage.

The NHS warns of these side-effects that are common even with the cosmetic skin lightening treatments that are available on prescription. 

Most people aren’t aware of these side-effects, or even make a conscious decision to bleach their skin. They are influenced by their peers and family members.

Marium Mohammed* says she started bleaching her skin when she was in her late teens because she saw her mother and older sisters doing it. It was almost a ‘coming of age’ ritual, and she thought that it would enhance her beauty.

“I didn’t really understand what I was doing, I just thought it was a regular beauty procedure. Obviously you always hear ‘pretty light skinned girl’ and I thought I could achieve that look over-night!”

“It seems silly now that I think of it, how can I change what God has given me so easily? And really, why would I want to?”

Three young women walking down the road
Colourism: We need to teach young women and girls their natural skin tone is beautiful

Now she regrets it, she says, and has come into a lot of health related problems because of the skin bleaching. Marium would never encourage her daughters to chemically bleach their skin and she thinks it’s a problem that needs to be addressed more directly.

“We need to come together and call out the people who still think its a good idea, I don’t blame my mother of course, but we need to make sure that future generations don’t come under the same pressures.”

Why do people lighten their skin? 

One of the reasons people chemically bleach their skin is because of the social privileges experienced by lighter skinned people of colour in wider society. In my community, a woman’s worth is inextricably tied into how she is perceived aesthetically. If the idealised look is several shades lighter than your natural skintone, using bleaching creams will seem like the only answer.

Often, if we see a person of colour in social spaces they previously did not have access to, we assume that boundaries have been lifted. However, this is not the case, if the said person of colour is lighter skinned then there is every chance that they benefited by pigmentocracy .

We only have to look in the entertainment industry to see there is a lack of representation of women of colour with darker skin tones. Beyonce’s father, Matthew Knowles commented on this in his interview with the magazine Ebony and highlighted how most of the world’s most recognised black female voices are all light skinned.

What is the solution? 

Of course, there are quick ways we can address the problem of skin-bleaching, the easiest of which is this: make these products illegal. However, as we have seen proven time and time again by the ongoing abortion debate, outlawing something doesn’t necessarily make it any less common: it simply makes it less safe.

Rwanda has become the latest in a string of African countries to ban skin bleaching products, but Global Industry Analysts predict that the skin lightening industry will reach $31.2 billion by 2024, with Africa (followed closely by Asia and the Middle East) remaining the focus of these sales.

Stylist Loves 

For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that. As well as the launch of our Body Politics series, we’ve partnered with Dove, whose latest project (in conjunction with photo library Getty Images) aims to increase the supply of diverse pictures of women – which we will be using going forward.

Our editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski has also made five pledges to Stylist readers:

1) We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.

2) We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.

3) We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.

4) We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.

5) Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.

Find out more about Stylist’s Love Women initiative here.

Images: Getty


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