As a child growing up in Dakar, Senegal, I remember playing a guessing game with my cousins. Whenever we saw light-skinned women in the street, in telenovelas, or in movies, we always looked attentively at their elbows, knees and hands. If any of these body parts were distinctly darker than their overall complexion, one of us who would call it for what was: khessel. In other parts of the world, they simply call it skin lightening.
A phenomenon that is as old as the advent of colonialism, skin lightening is a multi-billion-dollar beauty industry that persists in many parts of the world, despite its serious health implications. Indeed, there is a long list of side effects of using skin lightening products: permanent skin bleaching, thinning of the skin, uneven colour loss leading to a blotchy appearance, redness and intense irritation, dark grey spots; skin cancer, acne, increase in appetite and weight gain, osteoporosis, neurological and kidney damage due to high mercury levels, psychiatric disorders, asthma, liver damage, and severe birth defects in children born to mothers who abuse these creams. However, that has not stopped many women but also men from going to great lengths to acquire lightening products. In Ghana, some women are even using pills to lighten their unborn children’s skin colour. Whilst many may frown upon such practices, they are very common and pervasive. Skin lightening is deeply embedded in the historical legacy of colonialism and colourism, or shadeism, uncomfortable words that many are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone discuss. I still remember, in my last year of undergraduate study, becoming irate when a fellow Caucasian student dismissed skin lightening as just another trend, like tanning. He refused to see the difference between the two, despite me pointing out that no people of colour had colonised and brutally ruled Caucasian people and installed a meritocracy based on skin colour. It is precisely within European colonialism that the obsession with skin lightening began.