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Africans look for beauty in Western mirror

Black women turn to risky bleaching creams and cosmetic surgery

By Corinna SchulerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1999



JOHANNESBURG

Christine Motseledi, a soft-spoken hospital janitor, slathered her face in a skin-bleaching cream day and night for five years. The cold cream, she was told, would make her whiter.

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"I was happy when my skin was lighter," she says, "I felt more beautiful."

Bleaching creams are back in South Africa - more than a decade after they were banned for having disfigured thousands of black women. Two weeks ago, health inspectors here raided a cosmetics warehouse and uncovered thousands of tubes of toxic skin-bleaching creams that had been illegally smuggled into the country. The news that these creams are creeping back onto store shelves came as a shock.

But most startling is that, five years after the end of apartheid, women like Ms. Motseledi still buy the notion that pale skin is pretty - and dark skin is drab. This case - and other efforts by women to alter natural features - raises anew the question of how black beauty is defined in today's South Africa.

The arrival of black-majority rule did usher in a fresh appreciation for African fashions: Formal events now offer the option of dressing "black tie or traditional." But, when it comes to African ideas of bodily perfection, many analysts say African ideals are increasingly based on images peddled by the white, Western world.

Political liberation also brought an end to apartheid-era sanctions that had restricted foreign influences. But now South Africa's doors are wide open to Western TV shows, movies, magazines, books - and values. The impact is unmistakable.

A generous posterior, once considered the ultimate in African beauty, is out. Diet clubs, cosmetic surgery, and hair-straightening products are in, especially among black women in the big cities.

"In the States, being African is hip right now. Here, people want to look American," says the sales director for American Look hair-relaxing products, Rob Nevin. "They want to play basketball, drink Coke, and straighten their hair like Oprah Winfrey."

Take the issue of body shape. In traditional culture, a copious caboose was favored because it implied a woman was well looked after. But in recent years costly cosmetic surgery has come into vogue among up-and-coming black professionals, especially since South Africa's most beloved television talk-show host, Felicia Mabuza-Suttle, boasted of having surgery to downsize her "African trademark" buttocks.

"Everyone in Hollywood does it. Why shouldn't I?" she asks.

New WeighLess branches are opening up in South African townships every year as Rubenesque women line up to step on the scales. There are at least 4,000 black members in the Johannesburg area alone.

"It's embarrassing to be a fat African mama now," says Thandi Ntshihoeoe, a WeighLess group leader.

"The traditions are changing. We are more aware since we got democracy.... We want to be healthy, independent women who look good."

Many women are losing weight merely for fitness. But experts say the new focus on weight also has had some unhealthy consequences. Seven years ago, eating disorders were unheard of among African women. "But in the last three years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of black sufferers," says Christopher Szabo, a Johannesburg area psychiatrist who treats adolescents with eating disorders.

Dr. Szabo notes that the end of apartheid ushered in a new era of urbanization as black people, previously relegated to rural areas, rushed to the cities. "We may be seeing the impact of a new proximity to Western culture and Western ideas of beauty," he says.