Talking Her Out of Skin Bleaching Won't Work

Race Manners: This choice is one symptom of a society obsessed with whiteness. Being judgmental misses the point.

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(The Root) --

"I have a cousin who's lived here in the United States for a few years, although, like me, she is Nigerian. (My family moved here when I was younger.) She is becoming well adjusted to American life in my opinion, with the exception of one practice from home that she still clings to. She lightens her skin with harsh creams, and when I tell her it's harmful, not just physically but psychologically, it falls on deaf ears.

"She is beautiful, and she responds as though I'm crazy or overanalyzing when I tell her all the problems there are with this besides physical harm. She cites tanning, makeup, etc., as common things many do to improve their appearance and says she just wants to look her best and plans to have a treatment done in a doctor's office the next time she visits home. How can I get through to her that this is a bad habit and that she must stop and love herself as she is? Please help." --Bothered by Bleaching

I don't think you're crazy, and I don't think there's any such thing as overanalyzing when it comes to someone you care about doing themselves harm. But I want to make the case that your focus on your cousin's individual choices and your campaign to badger her into a brand of self-love that ignores her environment might be misguided.

First, some background: Your letter is timely. A recent World Health Organization report revealed that Nigerian women are the biggest users of skin-lightening products, with a full 77 percent of women in that country bleaching their skin. And your home country is certainly not alone when it comes to what's actually a global practice. It happens all across the African Diaspora, in Asia and, yes, here in the United States.

It's not new, either, not by a long shot. (Check out these old newspaper ads as evidence.) But lightening beauty parlors like the ones your cousin plans to visit are apparently doing a booming business in cities like Lagos. (Cue international scrutiny, accompanied by somber trend pieces with decidedly noncolorblind, jarring quotes like "Being lighter is more attractive.")

What the coverage of this issue gets right is that skin bleaching is associated with really scary health consequences, from eczema to kidney failure and even cancer.

It's easy to pair those risks with quotes touching on superficial "expert" explanations for the practice ("Every woman believes that when your skin is beautiful, people admire you," "I think it's because a lot of men want fair ladies, and the darker ones actually have an inferiority complex") to conclude, "For those who bleach, staying black is not beautiful at all." Add the often high price into the mix, and the hand-wringing coverage makes the women who whiten their skin seem as if they have misplaced priorities at best, but probably something more like deep-seated emotional or psychological issues.

But when a full 77 percent of women are doing something -- when it's been going on for decades, propped up by a lucrative industry and plenty of advertising -- doesn't it make sense to look at the bigger picture rather than individual, seemingly irrational choices?