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18 Jan, 2010 03:38

Skin bleaching victimizes black women

In pursuit of lighter skin beauty standards, black women living in France widely resort to skin bleaching products without knowing the risks they take.

Amy Mbaye’s life in France is enviable. She has a good job, a loving family and, by any standard, she’s a beautiful woman – any standard, that is, except her own.

That’s because she used to think she looked too black.

“You start using these products to become beautiful, people find that you’ve changed, that you have become prettier. That’s the reason why I started. Also partly because of my family – my sisters used it too, so I picked it up,” former skin-bleach cream user Amy Mbaye says.

And she’s not alone. Many cosmetic stores in Paris’ African neighborhoods sell products that carry the promise of lighter skin.

But they pose more than a moral dilemma for black women finding their place in French society.

Some of these products contain the highly-toxic chemical hydroquinone.

“You can end up with stretch marks, with acne all over your body, burns on your face, scars, skin and pigment problems,” Amy Mbaye says.

And those are just the visible problems.

There’s also the damage that can happen inside the body, leading to kidney failure, diabetes and cancer.

The breaking point for Amy came when her son was born.

“When I had a caesarian the skin didn’t grow back together, so the doctors even had to put stitches in so the cuts could join. If it happened in Africa, I would have died,” Amy Mbaye recalls.

One of the things that activists say will get women to stop using these dangerous products is giving them more positive role models and life-affirming images in the media.

Activist Isabelle Mananga-Ossey runs label Beauté Noire. Her organization exposes the dangers of skin bleaching and works to ban dangerous creams.

“If you read newspapers – everyone in them is white. And we want to be just as beautiful as everyone,” Isabelle Mananga-Ossey says.

But she says black women in France are increasingly finding people they can look up to – pop stars, athletes, and leaders.

“They dream of Rihanna, of Beyonce, and now Rama Yade,” Isabelle says.

Rama Yade is a highly-regarded French politician who’s currently the secretary of state for sports. And Isabelle Mananga-Ossey believes France’s black community should take inspiration from even further afield – the president of the United States.

“There is a black in the USA, called Obama, and it’s a good thing for us because there’s a mentality that a black man can have power,” she says.

It’s now five years since Amy Mbaye quit bleaching her skin.

And she couldn’t be happier. Her message is that, if there’s one thing that shouldn’t change, it’s the color of your skin.

“Look at me. I’m a survivor, and today I’ve stopped it and I feel good, and I am beautiful… We are born African, and we are African and we’re beautiful as we are,” Amy Mbaye says.