In my hometown, Freetown, Sierra Leone, women would prize having “fresh” skin – skin that was smooth and clear, of an even tone and untouched by acne scars or old mosquito bites. Usually though, fresh skin also went hand in hand with having a fairer complexion.
This equation of beauty with light complexions is obviously not unique to Sierra Leone. It is pervasive across African borders and present among our diaspora communities around the world. It stems from a wider historical context where generations of Africans and afro-descendants have been relentlessly bludgeoned with notions of our inferiority. At every level, the markers of our African identities have been labelled as primitive, ugly and undesirable, especially with regards to beauty.
Against this backdrop, the mere physical act of protecting, decorating, admiring our physical appearance is indeed an act of defiance against the conventions that have simultaneously ignored and undermined our well-being. It is a figurative middle-finger to those that have exoticised us whilst denying our humanity. When articles appear like the one written in 2011 by a professor at the London School of Economics, claiming that black women were less attractive than other races”, it’s easier to brush it off like the kwasiasem it is when you are in a committed and loving relationship with your body. So what if that relationship involves buying yourself that beautiful plum lipstick and that big bottle of expensive moisturiser? If you are diligently expanding your mind and nourishing your soul, there is no reason why you should not also pamper your body.
The flourishing of the community of African and diasporan beauty bloggers on social media has served to democratise the beauty industry. Knowledge of skincare, makeup and hair maintenance is no longer in the sole possession of those who are able to pay for the expensive services of a professional. Personally, I used to feel self-conscious about my spots and acne scars, and to an extent, I still do. I have been able to consult my favourite YouTube vloggers to learn about building a skincare regimen with products containing vitamin C and salicylic acid to cater for my skin type. Contrast this to a situation that is unfortunately still prevalent, where girls apply bleaching creams to their skin in an effort to fade their scars.
Our choices in purchasing beauty products have also played a starring role in our journey. Reclaiming traditional African products like shea butter and black soap has facilitated the economic and cultural rapprochement between Africans and the diaspora communities. Black communities in Western countries have been encouraged to continue to engage with other African industries and cultural goods; As many of these industries have long been the mainstay of women producers, the boom in the trade of products like shea butter has ensured a sustainable source of income for African women.
At the end of it all, one may well wonder “Is there a danger of reading too much into this?” The truth is, maybe there is. However, the mere existence of this debate is a triumphant display of collective strength. Where there was a heavy silence shielding the imposed conventions on standards of beauty that forever excluded African and Diaspora women, there is now a melody of contrasting opinions, creating space for all. “Sometimes, as poet and essayist, Momtaza Mehri, wrote, “looking good is just that. Looking good. Other times, it’s archival.”
Words by Nki Nafisa