Every once in a while we, as an information-consuming society, come along some one-off statistic that is so starting and surprising our immediate thought is that it must be some satire that buzzed right over our collective head. Seventy-seven percent of Nigerian women use skin-lightening products. I didn’t believe it at first; I didn’t even know “skin-lightening products” were a thing. But not only do they exist, they see widespread usage. Nigeria’s seventy-seven percent figure is certainly the largest, but it is far an obscure practice in the continent, with 27% of women in Senegal and 59% of women in Togo also using similar products. According to the study, the reason most women do this is because they want white skin.
Of course, it isn’t as if Africa is the only place where women try to change their skin color to feel more attractive. Just as light skin is seen as more attractive in some nations, tanned skin is considered the beauty standard in many western nations. It’d be surprising if, here in America, one couldn’t name an acquaintance who didn’t tan. However, the numbers don’t exactly match up. A large majority of Nigerian women whiten their skin, but according to a University of Minnesota study only 18.1% of American women use indoor tanning services.
Now, while we’d like to say so many African women use these products simply because Africa has a booming beauty industry and while it’d be easy to say this practice is fallout from the West’s colonialism, numbers alone can’t tell us that much. So in what other countries can we find these products in a wide usage? It’s certainly popular in Japan, but it has been for centuries. This particular manifestation can only be pinned down as some unique aspect of Japanese culture. The same cannot be said about similar trends in Korea, China, and even India. Some studies estimate that 40% of women in sub-regions of this area also use skin-whitening products. The difference is here people are more open about why. Depending on who you ask, white skin is either more beautiful, more marriageable, or simply classier. And like the African continent, these countries also have a history of falling under western occupation. Admittedly, it is far beyond my scope to bring together centuries of oppression, women’s body image and modern capitalism. But the numbers are there, and they do raise some concern.