/ 2 May 2006

Lighter is fairer

The 60s saw the advent of skin-lightening creams. The damage done by these creams cannot be emphasised enough, for they left untold emotional and physical scars in the black community. In the South Africa of that time, social hierarchies were clearly structured along the lines of skin colour. Opportunities of all kinds were dished out in terms of “whiteness” rather than merit. Based on the notion that the lighter you were, the better, even light-skinned blacks went for skin lighteners in a big way. The lighter and more “coloured looking” girls were always the preferred choice in beauty contests, performing arts and modelling. This tends to be a universal inclination, even to date — although it does go in phases. Sometimes it is the darker looking girls who become “the craze”. They are mostly treated as “exotic”.

Skin-lightening creams were bringing in millions of rands from blacks with their promises of eternal beauty. The commercials, both in print and on billboards, were progressively more sophisticated in style and effect. Marketers saw a golden opportunity and were using sophisticated models and settings to entice black consumers into using the “miracle” creams and lotions. Skin lighteners had an aspirational image, which tended to be most effective among the less-educated blacks. A survey done in early 1990 on the products showed that their use declined as people’s educational levels went up. Among the most popular were Artra, which was punted as having “Miracle Action” hydroquinone; Metamorphosa; Karoo Freckle complexion; Bu-Tone; Aloma Crème Blanche; Ambi Extra Skin Lightening for men; Desire skin tone; Super Rose special pimple, freckle and complexion lotion; Aviva; Kool Look Highlight; and lots more.

The danger of these creams and lotions was that, initially, they seemed to work. They did a good job of “taking away the blackness” and making you look good. On first application, the skin would become smooth and yellowish, giving a lovely complexion, all pimples and blemishes vanishing like magic. With progressive use, however, the hydroquinone in the products would “eat up” the skin, making it very thin and vulnerable to the strong ultraviolet rays of the sun, since it had no protective layers. From yellow, the skin would turn reddish, then blue and lastly purple. Apparently, the proper medical use of hydroquinone is for the treatment of skin disorders and it can be used safely and effectively for lightening the skin if manufacturers adhere to the 2% limit required legally. This was not done. There used to be many jokes doing the rounds about women with smooth, light complexions who did not dare to lift their black hands up to their faces, because the contrast was a marvel to behold! Their necks, too, were a startling sight, as if they were attached to the wrong faces. When those chubabas — which were the purpled patches on the cheeks and below the eyes — hit you, baby, you had to go and purchase those big, owl-like sun-goggles that were fashionable then. The goggles were a dead give-away, synonymous with chubaba‘d worldly women. Other side effects included “burnt skin, flaking and blemishes which were irreversible” (True Love, April 1990). There were also claims from some quarters of the medical profession that hydroquinone caused ochronosis — a disfiguring darkening of the skin. Just take a look at photo albums of the late 1960s to 1980s, gloss over pictures of your parents, aunties and their friends and you will understand.

There was once a Krok family with twin sons, Abie and Solly, who were very well known in the country. Their popularity increased after they bought one of the top soccer teams, Mamelodi Sundowns. These Krok brothers were among those who really made a fortune out of black women’s aspirations, and the misery consequent on skin lightener use. They were the managing directors of Twins Pharmaceuticals Holdings, manufacturers and marketers of Super Rose skin-lightening cream and lotion. Super Rose was so successful that, along with another popular brand, Ambi, the range was extended to men, in the form of a stronger version suitable for male skins, called He Man. The sisters went for it too, in order to become even lighter, more quickly. You had these men who had smooth, yellow looking faces with dark necks and hands. People in the townships called them bo warra. When “the perm” — which “relaxed” curly hair — came into fashion, together with their newly lightened faces — hey, these bo warra were quite something! Mostly, they were the guys from the rural areas, who would be seen around white neighbourhoods “checking out” their homeys working in the madams’ kitchens. Whenever they met one of their homeys they would call out, “Hey, go bjang, warra? [How is it, my brother?]” So everyone called them bo warra.

Although skin lighteners started in the 1960s, the trend endured for decades, finding its success in the negative self-image of black people. In 1990, journalist Ruth Bhengu wrote an in-depth article about skin lighteners in True Love magazine (April 1990). “Skin lighteners have, in recent years become more of a political issue than a consumer issue,” she stated. The Black Consumer Union, with its then president, Mrs NA Rampumane, at the helm had been campaigning vigorously for the banning of the 53 bleaching creams since 1985. Among the general public, debates about the dangers of these creams and lotions had long been doing the rounds as the damaging effects became apparent. The Black Consumer Union was growing increasingly exasperated with the apartheid government’s stalling on the issue, claiming that “if the products affected white women, the government would have barred them from the market long ago”. The union, in addition to engaging the government, instituted widespread educational campaigns to teach women about the harmful effects of these bleaching creams and lotions. It organised talks and workshops for township and women’s organisations, focused on raising awareness in schools, and even roped in taxis and other informal sector forums to help with the campaigns. The -lobbyists included Fabcos (Foundation for African Business and -Consumer Services) and the Black Taxi Association.

It took more than 20 years for the various campaigns to hit their target. Checkers (now Shoprite Checkers) was the first store to remove all skin lighteners from its shelves, but this only happened in the early 1990s. The government was under so much pressure by this time that it was prepared to ban the products and gave July 1988 as the first deadline. Then the deadline was extended to January 1 1991. It became a long and arduous debate between the various factions — lobbyists, government, medical and pharmaceutical circles, manufacturers and marketers, all with their different agendas and points of view. So much fuss, just because people were being made ashamed to be who they were and wanting to be “white”. Dr Neil Sparrow of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria did extensive research on skin lighteners in 1990. He concluded that neither the medical evidence nor the manufacturers’ claims were irrefutable: “Dermatologists have not proved beyond reasonable doubt that skin lighteners are harmful, nor have the manufacturers proved beyond reasonable doubt that their products are safe,” he stated (True Love, April 1990). He insisted it was up to the consumers themselves to make an informed decision about whether to use the products or not.

Eventually the lobbyists won and the 1990s saw the withdrawal of skin lighteners with hydroquinone from the counters. It turns out that they are still being sold in the streets, though not on the same scale as before, but available nonetheless. There is visible evidence in the form of black people with reddish faces that look different from their bodies — the tell-tale sign of a new skin-lightener user! Apparently, some pharmacies are still selling skin-lightening creams, though they now claim to have remedies for the damage done by the products containing hydroquinone. Fortunately these days, more and more people are accepting their natural skin colour and are interested in skincare rather than colour change.

For some of the previous generations who still have the damage evident on their faces, those “battle scars” are to be borne like soldiers, unashamedly, and even with pride. As one woman put it: “Anybody who knew anything used those creams. If you don’t have chubabas, then you were not an ‘it’ girl of the moment!”

Believing in black

There is one sore point that Nakedi [Ribane] raises in her book: that of skin bleaching. This has been a big issue with me over the years, to the extent that it features extensively in my work, such as the play And the Girls in their Sunday Dresses and the novel The Madonna of Excelsior. Those of us who have campaigned against hydroquinone in skin cosmetics thought we had attained victory when this deadly chemical was banned. But guess what? It is back in a big way. Not in the formal sector this time, but in the streets. Since the open borders that came with our liberation, we have seen skin-lightening creams, imported from such countries as the Congo, sold by street vendors in downtown Johannesburg and such places as the Germiston station. What saddens me most is the silence of women’s organisations and consumer watchdogs on this new onslaught on the skins of uninformed black women. Is it because the women affected are mostly working-class women in our urban slums and peasants in the rural areas that not a sound has been heard from our influential leaders, particularly youth and women leaders?

The story that I hope Nakedi will write one day, however, is on indigenous beauty products. She touches on the subject in this book, but I think it is such a fascinating subject that it deserves a book of its own. It would be interesting to examine the perspectives of beauty of our various ethnic groups in South Africa, body and hair adornments, and the natural products that the women and men used for cosmetics. Such research would help to correct the erroneous notions into which we have been socialised by colonialism that beauty and its appreciation came to us from the West. Unfortunately, the West does not understand the notion of loving something so much that you don’t want to own it. When they didn’t find any flowers in the vases in our houses, they concluded that our aesthetic sensibilities were so stunted that we did not recognise the beauty of the flowers. They did not realise that we loved flowers, but only when they were in their natural environment. We loved their beauty so much that we did not want to own it. — Zakes Mda in the foreword to Beauty: A Black Perspective (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press)