By Reem Gaafar
Sudan is a melting pot of different nations, cultures and religions. There is no one ‘type’ of Sudanese, and no one can claim that the land belongs to them. Over the generations, there have been Nilotic Africans, Arabs, Turks, Moroccans, Egyptians, Greek, Coptic and others, so that Sudanese people today are a wide range of skin and eye colours, shapes and sizes, and dialects and habits. However, the vast majority of Sudanese are dark-skinned. It’s a hot country with little shade, so everyone gets the tan whether they like it or not. So, with almost everyone being in the darker side of the colour range, one must ask: why does everyone want to be white?
Skin whitening is the new-age epidemic in Sudan. EVERYONE is doing it, the only difference is how. For a country where people wake up to double bread and oil prices every day, where 70% of the country doesn’t have health insurance and the education and health system having collapsed, and most people can’t afford their next meal; they’re not faring too bad in the cosmetics business at all. There’s something for everyone: from tiny containers of mixed bleaches that cost 25 pounds available in kiosks and pharmacies, to the 8,000 pound Cosmolane skin treatment provided in uptown chic beauty salons. Celebrity pharmacists and dermatologists get their reputations from how successful and fast their treatments are, and products are nicknamed things like ‘Shock the Neighbours’ for their efficiency and speed. It can be a cream, pill or injection. There is little (if any) regulation from authorities, and it’s not uncommon to find unlicensed ‘professionals’ from various shady backgrounds operating from their own clinic/store/dispensary/house, examining and giving advice to clients, making and marketing their products with their own brands. They even pay taxes. In fact, one particularly popular young woman was on TEDx Women last year talking about her experience as the developer and owner of a successful cosmetics business. Several years ago a previously popular cream called Diana was withdrawn from the market for having ridiculously high levels of Mercury in it. It was an impressive step by the authorities and they were commended on it. However, wherever it was withdrawn to apparently wasn’t very far because a short while later the product reappeared in the market in plain sight, just as popular and twice as expensive.
In the past women were not so discrete about their skin-whitening habits, and lightened mainly their faces and necks. The result was what was called the ‘Fanta Face, Pepsi Hands’ phenomena, as the face was visibly several shades lighter than the rest of the body. I remember as a medical student in my OBGYN shift, a pretty young woman with a brown-sugar complexion coming in for a check-up, but when she exposed her abdomen for examination, it was a shocking black. It took me quite a while to get over that incident. Nowadays, however, both customers and manufacturers are smarter about skin-whitening, and there are no tell-tale body parts left untouched.
Skin whitening is also the new-age public health hazard in Sudan. The erratic use of chemicals, combined with the heat and poor health education, is a recipe for disaster. 16% of dermatologists believe skin lightening creams are completely unsafe and 80% feel they are only safe when prescribed by a dermatologist (NHS, 2012). In Khartoum, doctors state that those coming for treatment of skin-whitening product side effects have grown to 1 in every 4 patients (Sudan Tribune, 2006). Steroids and bleaching agents can cause anything from a mild sunburn to skin cancer. A few weeks of shiny, fair coloured skin turn slowly into reddish discolouration, blotchy and uneven skin tone, ulceration, wounds that won’t heal, then complete deformity if it isn’t’t caught in time. Steroids cause the skin to become friable and thin, easily torn, and impedes the healing process. And it’s not as if these dangerous side-effects are unknown to users: on the contrary, the vast majority of women are quite aware of the dangers of using random skin-whitening products but use them anyway. Most users are university students and employees; there’s even a large sector of doctors and nurses involved. Like African-American hair styling experts quote in Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’ documentary, ‘we’re gonna look good, regardless,’ (Bernard Bonner, 2009).
This issue is by no means new, nor is it unique to Sudan or even to Africa. It’s pretty much everywhere, and ironically in those nations where dark skin is part of the normal cultural and racial population mix, like South-east Asia. Dubbed the ‘Snow White Complex’, the root explanatory cause differs from culture to culture, but is the same in the overall idea that ‘fairer is more beautiful’. In Sudan, it goes a little deeper than just beauty. Yes, it’s mainly because men want light skinned women as wives, and being someone’s (anyone’s) wife in the Sudanese culture is all that the Sudanese culture expects from women (but that’s whole other rant), but it’s also something much worse: race and superiority. As in many cultures, darker coloured people are considered inferior in the society. In Sudan, these are mostly in the west and south of the country (before the South became a whole different country). Dark skin colour goes hand in hand with words like ‘slave’ and ‘ugly’. This obviously has political as well as cultural implications, not to mention the fact that girls are taught at a young age that their beauty and worth is tied to the shade of their skin. At the end of day, the message is strong enough to drive women of all ages and backgrounds, educated and uneducated, rich or poor, into the open arms of the booming skin-whitening business, where there is a guaranteed solution for all their problems at a price to match each and everyone’s wallet.
Like Atiyya Korodia says, its about time beauty was redefined.
Read more about skin-whitening in Sudan and elsewhere here: