A few days ago I watched a preview of a documentary titled ” Dark Girls”, which follows the stories of numerous African-American women and their struggle with dark skin. As I watched this short clip, their stories were all too familiar. These same stigmas dominate our culture in Sudan and I would venture to say even the horn of Africa. Speaking from experiences in Sudan and what I have come to find out in Ethiopia, the issue of skin colour has been indoctrinated into every little girl in both countries.
During my time in the US, I came to find that some African-American women looked at North/East African women with disdain. I took me a while to understand that looks had to do a lot with it. Skin complexion, long hair, high cheekbones. Little did they know that these very same way they viewed East African women, women from the horn applied the same stringent principles on themselves.
In Sudan, and I guess now I have to differentiate (Northern Sudan), a common catch phrase for a mother, auntie or female relative to blurt out is “why have you been spending so much time in the sun, you are dark like charcoal.” Growing up in a fairly open-minded family, despite their consciousness on many other serious issues, they were blind to the backward ways in which they view skin colour. I grew up very conscious of the fact that I am on the darker end of the spectrum when it comes to members of my family. My mother, also having darker skin tone than her siblings was endearingly referred to with pet names that if someone outside our family heard, would be taken a back. When in a gathering of women who are discussing any young girl, skin colour almost always trumps all other features that we define as beautiful. So it doesn’t really matter so long as you are light-skinned you are considered beautiful.
Beauty regiments that Sudanese girls follow are ludicrous. Skin bleaching creams are the norm, which an unfortunate thing to say. The prevalence of kidney disease among Sudanese women is astonishingly high…yet no one wants to correlate the excessive use of skin bleaching cream with this disease. The local industry is booming with “home-made” concoctions that god only knows what’s inside. In an effort to get that “perfect complexion” the length some go to is very worrying. Even those who cannot afford these expensive creams or mixtures frequent small shops all around the country called ” قدر ظروفك” which roughly translates to “weigh your circumstances”. These shops sell such goods in varying quantities depending on the money you have available, they will put a dollop of cream in foil or if you can afford it you can walk out with the entire tube or jar.
What’s sad is the implications of skin colour on the society, dark, blotchy skin is equated with diminished marriage prospects. So in the process, young women, plagued by this social stigma are willing to try any product in the quest to find that lighter, even skin tone. When their skin is damaged, which in most instances is the case after usage of these products, you often see ghost-like young girls parading around town with a layer of thick concealer or powder on their faces; often several shades lighter than their true tone. What’s slightly more amusing is that many of these girls walk around donning black gloves, in a country where 50 degrees celsius around some months is the norm. All in an effort to hide the fact that they have used these lightening creams only on their faces and the disparity between their hands and faces is shockingly visible.
So in watching the preview of this documentary and reflecting on the issue back home, why are many women in our community and across the globe applying such harsh standards on themselves? what is causing our society to think in this manner? I would definitely like to see the full documentary and see what conclusions it draws based on its numerous interviews. I do fear that they may still reflect upon many black women as self-hating individuals without actually looking at the root causes of why this stigma is so widespread. I do believe media has a very powerful role in this case. When one is bombarded with thousands of adverts, commercials and billboards with “beautiful” young light-skinned women, the average young lady starts to equate skin tone with success. Why is that she is seeing a light-skinned girl and not someone who looks like her? The multi-billion dollar beauty industry does an impeccable job of peddling products and keeps generating media to support the cause for women everywhere under-appreciating their beauty.
All in all, I really do believe that we need to start a serious dialogue about this issue. For all my Sudanese sisters who are so close to my heart and all the other women out there who are perpetuating this stigma. As a community, we need to start looking within as well and figuring out what we need to do to help dispel these notions.