In primary school – the point at which psychologists swear permanent scarring happens, marring an adult future – I was the ugly duckling.
When I stood up, this group of boys would heckle me to sit back down. I was absorbing all the sun, they exclaimed. Black skin is the butt of many a joke. Churchill, that versatile, witty comedian, constantly declares that in school he was the lightest boy in his class despite his blue-black hue.
Amazingly “you are pretty for a dark-skinned girl” is considered a compliment. A couple of years back there was this advertisement that left me and many like-minded others huffing and frothing at the mouth.
In walks this “dark” woman, otherwise quite attractive but surprisingly invisible. That is until she is introduced by a fair-minded friend to a magic potion.
Four weeks later following a stunning makeover, she waltzes to not only her dream job but also fades into the sky with her pilot – the very one who breezed past her earlier – easily establishing a precedence of disregard based on the superficial for this future relationship. That alone squarely put me off the product.
Paradoxically, the very people idolised for their complexions shift not just under lighting but more so according to the demographic.
Beyonce, held up indefatigably as a beauty icon, is inherently lighter than most women. She goes to great lengths to appear darker in her music videos.
J-Lo actually blends a tanner with her body lotion, applying it all over to get the olive complexioned sheen of a Latina otherwise she looks white.
On the other side of the continent, tanning salons are a dangerous species unto themselves. Their long-term harm endlessly discussed. The fair want to brown and the brown want to be fair.
A recent dermatological research in South Africa found that as little as 25 per cent of women to as many as 77 per cent of West Africans are using skin lightening products. Their reason is simple; the men prefer them this way. Fair is the standard of beauty.
Kenya cannot afford to be smug either. In 2000, when there was a ban on more than 200 Kenyan beauty products by the Kenya Bureau of Standards, we finally saw our own reflections.
It turned out that a number of products on that list were victims of overzealous hunting, among them an entire range of cocoa butters.
This is odd because it can have the opposite effect. Once you use it and step into the sun, your skin browns – rather like a rich, buttery cocoa – than lightens.
Maybe this is an anomaly but I know several women who altered their dark into light. I remember an aunt who used Ambi. When it went off the market her skin never recovered. Another used Jik. Repeatedly.
A girlfriend with the most beautiful ebony skin in high school now bears an undecided skin tone. I have a Tanzanian cousin with brown skin. Every morning she applies a concoction she made and has used for years that lifted the dark and simply said when I asked, “These are very common in Tanzania. I even know how to make it.” She offered to do a special mix just for me even though she was not sure what it was she blended. What she did know is it made her skin lighter and beautiful. After a day in the heat, however, she always seemed less, well, lush. Though, to be fair, the sun does this to us all.
Still, the dark skinned sisters point out how the light skinned are glorified. South Africa built theirs on apartheid and North Africa tends to have a uniquely fair look. East Africa succumbs under the duress of colonisation.
Experts allege wanting to be white is a phenomenon of the uneducated, but nothing could be further from the truth. One may do it through acid peels and elegantly packaged, expensive facial creams, the other through a series of tubes. A bleach by any other name.
Alongside finding the right cosmetics and products for dark skin however always lies the unfortunate challenge of uneven skin tone.
As for that band of merry boys, I choose to think they were dazzled by my emerging fabulosity. They merely lacked the eloquence to express it. That is my adult hindsight story and I am sticking to it.