25/01/2017 17:50 SAST | Updated 26/01/2017 11:55 SAST

In An Age of #BlackGirlMagic, Why Is Skin Lightening Booming ?

The discussions about self-acceptance and self-love seem to be happening only in small, isolated spaces.

In an age of #BlackGirlMagic, the skin lightening business is reportedly booming. The resurgence of the trend has been surprising, especially given the recent movement towards black pride and campaigns like #BlackGirlMagic, which celebrates the beauty and successes of black women.

When Milisuthando Bongela stopped for groceries at a busy Rosebank food market recently, she was so struck by the beauty of her cashier that she couldn't help blurting out "You're beautiful," to the young, dark-skinned woman behind the counter. The response was surprising.

"She was shocked that I said that. She said, 'But yellow bones are the popular ones." And I said "In my books, you're beautiful.'"

"Yellow bone" is the contentious slang term often appreciatively used to describe light-skinned black woman.

"Where do we learn these ideas?" asks Bongela, the arts and culture editor for the Mail & Guardian newspaper. "It's in the air we breathe, it's pervasive. Those racist notions are everywhere; anything that's better is still whiteness."

Paras Griffin via Getty Images
Singer Monica Brown attends the 2016 Black Girls Rock! awards at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre.

Bongela, who is currently working on a documentary about hair and black identity, believes the reason why movements like #BlackGirlMagic haven't won out over skin lightening is because discussions about self-acceptance and self-love are only happening in small, isolated spaces.

"The #BlackGirlMagic narrative is standing out because it's alone, essentially, because it's not normal. This subliminal aspiration to whiteness has always been the norm," she says.

Conversations about reimagining beauty ideals are happening, she says, but they're concentrated in South Africa, the United States and, to a certain extent, in England.

"In India, in Nigeria, conversations about decolonising [ideas of beauty] are not happening as much as we are having them here," she says.

There has however been a pushback, helped along by social media, particularly on Instagram and Facebook, Bongela says.

"Black women are doing incredible things. They're reading the fine print and the backs of bottles, and asking what's in these products that we're using on ourselves and our children."

And beauty companies are slowly waking up to the fact that they exist in a black country.

Bongela says that when talking about racism, colourism and people's decisions to lighten their skin, it's important not to vilify individuals.

"You can't shame someone into changing the way they think," she says. "Its easier and more effective to question the system that has created this, to question the beauty industry, to question the media industry on why they perpetuate these ideas of what's beautiful."

"Then there are our parents: my mom used to lighten her skin, her mum used to lighten her skin. We come from a time where these things were sold to us. We cannot unlink the things we do to our skin and hair today to growing up and being part of the social fabric of a country that told us we are worthless in every way."

Lester Davids, a professor of cell biology who's written extensively on skin lightening, agrees. "You can't exactly tell someone not to use a cream if they want to use it. The choice is theirs. All we can strive towards is knowing what the potential dangers of using a skin lightening cream are and knowing also that if you're 19 or 22 years old, you've got very young skin and it can get damaged very easily," says Davids.

Professor Ncoza Dlova, head of the dermatology department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and president of the African Women's Dermatology Society, believes it may be necessary to relook at advertising regulations to ensure that people are encouraged to love their natural skin colour, whether dark or fair, and to endorse the message that the best skin colour is the one you are born with.

"The main message to the consumers should be to encourage them to keep their skin healthy and not to be lured by words which have undertones conveying the message that skin has to be lighter to be more attractive," she says.

The package on colourism that Huffington Post South Africa is publishing today came from a conversation in the office as we were getting ready to launch: "Guys, we should do a video on all the ridiculous things dark-skinned women hear all the time." The choruses of "Yes!" and the stream of anecdotes – funny and awful – showed that this was an untapped well of stories waiting to be told in South Africa. We are aware that colourism exists but we're still likely to joke about "yellow bones" with the rest of our friends. Conversations about why every aspect of this culture is problematic is silenced with: "But skin lightening is a personal choice". Except that it isn't. In our series of stories we show the harmful effects of this obsession in our society – from a personal, social and economic point of view. We look at how illegal creams are still sold and how upmarket legal alternatives are still questionable. We look into small communities, like Indians in South Africa, where colourism still thrives, and talk to celebrities about why they lightened their skin. Because as a dark-skinned woman myself, I'm ready for change, and so is our society. — Verashni Pillay, Editor-in-Chief