25/01/2017 14:50 SAST | Updated 26/01/2017 11:36 SAST

'Toning' Is All The Rage In Nigeria, But It's Downright Alarming

"It's not bleaching – I don't do that. I use a toning cream."

Moky Makura

A few weeks ago, I spent the weekend at a wedding in Cape Town with an old friend from Nigeria who I hadn't seen for a while. The first time I saw her was when she opened the door to her hotel room. My initial reaction was not "great to see you," as one would expect when old friends meet, but one of mild horror.

She was orange.

The colour of her face was almost the same as Donald Trump's - as in, it was orange. Given that Trump is a white man and my friend a black woman, I was understandably alarmed.

I had never given much thought to my friend's skin colour until that moment in the doorway of her hotel room. I'd always known her to be brown in a nondescript kind of way, not too light, not too dark but more importantly, she looked like her skin belonged on her not on Trump.

"Wow", I said. "Are you bleaching your skin? You look ... er... different".

I actually meant to say "terrible," but I didn't want to upset her. She was after all a good friend.

"It's not bleaching – I don't do that," she said somewhat defensively. "I use a toning cream. I'm toning my skin so its all one even colour."

In my protected world, I thought "toning" was the exclusive practice of women who were trying to give themselves an advantage in the search of a male partner.

Coming from Nigeria, toning, bleaching, lightning, or whitening – call it what you will - is fairly common practice. According to a 2013 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77 percent of women in Nigeria use these products, making Nigeria the world's largest user by percentage.

Despite the figures, I didn't think I knew or had any close friends who "toned" and certainly not to a degree that should have alarmed me. In my protected world, I thought "toning" was the exclusive practice of women who were trying to give themselves an advantage in the search of a male partner. It's a known fact (some would argue, a gross generalisation) that Nigerian men like their women "yellow".

In my world, smart, capable women just didn't do it. You were born with a colour and you lived happily ever after with it – it was what you did with your life that mattered.

In my case, I was handed the "dark" card and I never gave it much thought. But as I age, I am very thankful because my skin's extra helping of melanin protects me from the damaging effects of the sun and could keep me looking younger for longer. I also wear less make up as it doesn't show on my skin anyway, so I save money and time. My mother was clear- and smooth-skinned at age 80, and I hope I will be the same.

On the other hand, my orange friend's skin colour will revert to what it was - darker and in patches, so I hear - or she may be susceptible to some of the side effects of prolonged skin lightening, like thinning skin or more visible blood vessels.

Yes, colour matters but what shade of colour you are is about something deeper and says more about self-esteem than about beauty or race.

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