Dakar Fashion Week in Senegal has been showcasing beautiful African women and fashion since 2002—but this year, the founder had something new in store.
Sengalese fashion designer Adama Ndiaye reportedly said she banned models from the Dakar Fashion Week who lighten their skin, a process which she refers to as “depigmentation.”
Ndiaye told FashionGhana.com that she’s against the practice and doesn’t find it pretty.
“I’m trying to teach them to like themselves,” she told the publication.
According to a 2011 World Health Organization report, many women in several African countries use products to lighten their skin regularly. In Senegal, 27 percent of women are reported to bleach their skin. But the percentages of women who bleach their skin in other countries are much higher: 77 percent of women in Nigeria, 59 percent of women in Togo and 35 percent of women in South Africa.
The popularity of skin bleaching varies across cultures, races and ethnicities, but the process is hazardous. According to the World Health Organization report, a common ingredient in lightening products is (inorganic) mercury. Mercury hinders the creation of melanin.
“Generally, skin whitening is a symptom of the African’s hatred of himself,” said Oscar Bamuhigire, a psychologist who lives in Uganda and has written articles on skin lightening. “Most Black Africans suffer from a hatred of their own selves, which is a consequence of the trauma inflicted upon them by many years of colonialism, neocolonialism, slavery and Apartheid.”
Although some may feel beautiful in their new skin, the long-term effects of the exposure to mercury range from scarring to rashes to kidney damage. This practice is not only injurious to oneself, but also hazardous to others; mercury eventually enters the food chain, affecting fish and water. The report explains that pregnant women who eat the contaminated fish can pass the mercury on to their unborn children.
Oulimata Ba, who is Senegalese-American, said although she has never lightened her complexion, she knows family members who have. Ba was happy to hear what Ndiaye is now doing with Dakar Fashion Week.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing she’s doing, but that action alone is not enough,” she said.
Ba added that the European standards of beauty are so deeply ingrained in the culture that this ban of skin-bleaching models cannot make a huge change. But she hopes it’s a catalyst for more to come.
“It’s funny because Senegalese women are very proud to be African,” Ba said, “but it’s a huge contradiction.”