Simonson Says: Skin bleaching and other unnatural treatments

In a recent interview with the Daily Nation, Kenyan model Ajuma Nasenyana became the latest to speak out against skin-lightening cream. Nasenyana is well known for being outspoken against the skin-lightening cream industry, which has seen disturbing success in her home country.

“It seems that the world is conspiring in preaching that there is something wrong with Kenyan ladies’ kinky hair and dark skin,” Nasenyana said. “. . . People in Europe and America love my dark skin. But here in Kenya, in my home country, some consider it not attractive.”

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, skin-lightening cream advertisements basically promote the idea that darker skin is akin to a blemish and should be covered up to help people of color look a little more Caucasian. Just to reiterate, this is a booming industry in countries where light skin isn’t even the norm. Yes, the Western media and its narrow, outdated standards of beauty reign supreme even on the other side of the world.

Indian actresses Freida Pinto and Aishwarya Rai have also criticized magazines they have appeared in for Photoshopping their skin to look lighter, and many of us have also noticed this blatantly being done to African-American celebrities like actress Gabourey Sidibe in photoshoots. When someone like Freida Pinto — yes, the bafflingly gorgeous girl from “Slumdog Millionaire” — is considered not pretty enough because her flawless complexion isn’t pasty white, I’m seriously tempted to push for it being a federal offense.

A lot of people argue that promoting skin-lightening cream is no different than selling tanning products. Others quickly shoot them down with “if you honestly think tanning is remotely comparable to centuries of white supremacy, you’re a moron.” Go to any online article about skin-lightening cream to witness these circular debates.

I agree that being sold the image of having spent some leisurely time in the sun is not exactly the same thing as being told you should look like another race, but to be honest, I don’t get the appeal of tanning either. I don’t mind it when people do; I just don’t get the universal urge to look different than we naturally do, whether that be through skin-lightening cream, breast implants or other cosmetic surgery. Again, I have no judgment for people who use these treatments; the pressure of society’s standards can be brutal. I personally just don’t understand the need to make a drastic change to one’s appearance based on narrow, superficial cultural standards that are known to change over time. I’ve known people to argue that such procedures are no different than wearing makeup or push-up bras, but I disagree. There’s a huge difference between using subtle tools to emphasize your own natural looks versus wanting to look like something you’re not and shouldn’t have to be.

Even when I think of just dyeing my hair, no matter how cool it sounds to tell people I’m a blonde or a redhead now, I balk a little at the thought of parting with my brunette status. My hair color’s a little boring and drab, but I’ve always considered it part of my identity. I am a pale brunette, and that’s fine because it’s what I naturally am. It might not be that eye-catching or original, but the way we all individually look is a part of the aesthetic diversity that makes humanity beautiful and interesting. Whatever you look like, it’s a look that’s completely unique to you (unless you’re an identical twin, in which case you have other perks), and that’s something to be proud of (and definitely if you’re Freida Pinto or Ajuma Nasenyana).

Skin tone is just one facet of appearance that people are being pressured to change. Those of us who can’t relate to being told we’re not the right color can probably relate to being told we’re not the right body type or don’t have the right kind of hair or facial features. These are lies, and damaging ones. Don’t buy into the hype, ladies and guys of all shapes, sizes and colors. You look great.