BLACK LIVES MATTER: HOW ABOUT YOUR SKIN?
By Ore Taiwo Makinde.
In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jnr led a civil rights campaign in which he advocated that people should be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. This message is as relevant today as it was then, and underscores the message that the lives of those of us with ‘black’ skin count as much as those with fairer skin. There should be no partiality and no segregation. We all hope for a day when racism will become a topic children learn about in history books rather than something that remains prevalent in society.
Who are ‘black people’ really? This word is used to describe populations of people with dark skin due to its rich pigmentation with melanin. The levels of melanin in the skin vary from race to race, from country to country and even from one ethnic group to another. Individual genes determine to a large extent how dark or fair skin colour turns out, but is there any of the colours that are really preferable?
Skin colour: A matter for the court? I watched Judge Judy deal with the case of a young African-American woman who tried to divorce her mom in court a few years ago. This was based on her notion that the colours of their skin were so far apart, hers being much fairer and closer to the “non-blacks”. In a similar vein, I watch my fellow-blacks in my home country trying to change the colour of their skin. A lovely, ebony-black young lady showed me a photo of herself way back in college. I found it hard to accept that she was the self-same person in the photograph until she explained that the cream she used at the time was responsible for her fair image in the photo.
It was a purpose-made cream concocted by a woman who sold the same to University students for thousands of Naira, the cost depending on how much fairer the client wanted to become. However, they needed to keep up their patronage or risk losing their fairness. Fortunately, her fiance had insisted that she stop using it before they got married and her normal black colour returned without a trace of the various colour shades that accompany the use of such creams or soaps.
Statistics on skin lightening in Africa In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a report estimated that 77% of Nigerian women used skin lightening products regularly. This was compared with 59% in Togo, 35% in South Africa and 27% in Senegal. So the question is still hanging out there for each of us to answer. Black lives matter, but how about black skin? Why do black women want to lighten their colour? Some call it bleaching, others toning. An even worse scenario was depicted in a video where a “cosmetologist” was advertising her skills as she scraped off the skin of her ‘victim’ with what reminded me of a paring knife, claiming that scrapping off the dead cells was revealing clean and fresh skin! I was mortified.
To help us answer this question, let us look at the following skin functions intertwined with the results of trying to change the colour of the skin:
Protection: The skin serves as a protective layer for the body. The first layer is known as the epidermis. It is our foremost line of defence against toxins, chemicals and pollutants. Scrapping it off compromises the body’s immunity and makes one vulnerable to skin infections and skin cancer. Skin lightening products also lead to loss of skin elasticity and therefore poor wound healing. Doctors encounter enormous challenges suturing lacerations on such skin.
Absorption: The skin is an important route used for absorption of water, oxygen and micro-nutrients which help to nourish and moisturise the skin. It is also used as a route for drug administration. Using skin lightening products which contain steroids, mercury salts and hydroquinone can predispose to diabetes, liver disease, kidney failure, alteration in sperm production and foetal malformations to mention a few.
Beauty: Our skin is the first hint of what we look like before our shape or figure. Altering skin colour can distort one’s overall beauty leaving behind pimples, skin irritation, skin allergies/hypersensitivity, skin shrinkage, stretch marks and different colour shades around the neck, ears, knuckles, knees and ankles all of which result from attempts at lightening the skin.
In conclusion, “Black is beautiful” and “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. Refuse to be stigmatised by the colour of your skin and do not stigmatise or ridicule others because of their skin colour because red or yellow, black or white, we are equally the same. Let us reflect on our black beauty and preserve our skin colour. In so doing, we will prevent the associated damage that comes from the use of lightening, toning or bleaching products.
Dr Ore Taiwo Makinde is a Consultant Family Physician and certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician.