Why would young black women not be happy with natural beauty?
Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Recently, I came across a young African woman who has decided that a light complexion is better than a dark one.
She had been applying a skin-lightening cream to her face and neck, but not on her arms and legs, which were as dark as nature had intended them to be. Applying a lightening cream to the whole body can run into a lot of money.
This had to happen, I thought. It is a fact that strong cosmetic industry advertisements bombard people with images of smooth, light skins and light-complexioned people are in the majority here and the rest of the country.
That a light complexion would become a thing of envy, something to aspire to, therefore made a whole lot of sense.
It doesn't explain why people in countries where dark-skinned people are in the majority choose to lighten their skins, though.
When I was growing up in South Africa, a fair complexion was avidly sought. The use of skin-lightening creams was ubiquitous among women and some men.
I distinctly remember advertisements in the black press for lightening creams with labels such as Artra and Ambi. One or both creams contained either hydroquinone or mercury. People were encouraged to buy the products to show that they were progressive and modern.
Granted, the creams produced the desired results. Skins did lighten and complexions did become smooth and translucent.
But after a while, with natural exposure to the elements, especially the sun, some people's skins darkened to an unhealthy black/blue hue - nothing like their original complexions. In those days, the ill-effects of lightening creams were unknown, or if known, the information was not publicly shared with consumers.
Now we know the effects of these lightening creams. One of the articles I read over the Internet mentions convulsions, asthma, leukemia and liver damage as some of the effects. Yet, these creams are still being sold in pharmacies or beauty stores, here and abroad.
With a light complexion came the desire to straighten hair. And I have a confession to make - I did it too, at least the hair-straightening part. I spent my early years in Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg.
The residents of Sophiatown were culturally diverse. Africans, Boers, Chinese, Indians and Malays lived cheek by jowl. While living there, my family and I enjoyed these different cultures. For instance, we developed a taste for spicy food at an early age, and we knew that our Muslim neighbors called their God Allah.
We straightened our hair to look like the colored or Indian kids we played with. But all of that changed in 1948, when the National Party came to power.
Dominated by the urge to divide and rule, among other things, the National Party decided that this potpourri of people living together was a threat to the body politic. Sophiatown was razed to the ground and on its ruins the whites-only suburb of Triomph was built. Many of the people who lived in Sophiatown were forcibly moved to what is now called Soweto.
After my family and I had arrived in Soweto, we had to go through a process of defining our identity in a community officially classified as for black people only.
One mark of the identity switch my sisters and I made was that we decided to wear our hair natural so as to blend in. Playground taunts of "Boesman" (the title character in a famous South African play about a mixed-race couple) had catapulted us in that direction.
Being forced to wear our hair natural was a blessing. We were relieved from hours of hair-grooming sessions in which either castor oil or petroleum jelly was applied to our hair before being combed with a hot iron comb.
It wasn't until we were past adolescence that we subjected ourselves to hair straightening again. Chemical hair straighteners had entered the South African beauty enhancement market. After one bad experience with one such straightener, I said goodbye to hair straightening of any type or sort.
I realize that the young African woman I saw will have to travel her own journey to discover the truth about her own beauty.
She is, after all, like I was at some points in my life, trying to fit in.
Still, it is troubling to realize that the existence of black African models such as Alek Wek, a member of the Dinka tribe from the Southern Sudan, hasn't made young African women proud of their complexion.
The 1960s slogan, "black is beautiful," means little or nothing to this generation.
Meike Jenness of Peaks Island is a freelance writer and occasional videographer.