Africans look for beauty in Western mirror

Black women turn to risky bleaching creams and cosmetic surgery

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

Elsie Motloantoa, a full-figured advertising executive, was disturbed recently when her six-year-old daughter came home from school to say that a white girl made fun of her large behind. Ms. Motloantoa told her daughter that beauty comes from within - but she remains furious that African women are encouraged to squeeze into an image that many can not realistically attain.

"The white image of beauty is being forced down our throats," Motloantoa says. "We have naturally big hips and thighs. But magazines show black women who are very pale and very skinny."

Moreover, she says, models often have long straight hair "even though, to us, very short hair was really considered dignified."

"It's the American influence," says Mr. Nevin. His hair-relaxing products are selling better than ever as young city women seek ways to hide natural curls. After the first democratic elections in 1994, Nevin tried to promote hair products under the brand name African Pride - but that sales strategy flopped. "The fact is that Africans aspire to the American way of life."

Using a relaxer may just make African hair more manageable, says the editor of South Africa's leading black women's magazine. But the motives for using bleaching creams go more than skin deep.

"It is part of making yourself less black, ripping away at your roots," says Khany Dhlomo-Mkhize of True Love magazine, produced by and for black women. "It is the residual effects of the past, when black was seen as unworthy."

Africans suffered the worst discrimination under apartheid. People of mixed race, the coloured community, were lighter-skinned and treated somewhat better. Whites, on the other hand, were superior. Their skin was seen to reflect "a certain purity, innocence, and status," explains Ms. Dhlomo-Mkhize.

To be sure these concepts are not new or unique to South Africa. Centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth I powdered her face to accentuate her aristocracy. And skin-lightening creams are still sold today in the US, Britain, India, and many other African and Asian countries.

Ms. Motseledi says she only wanted her chocolate complexion to be creamier. "I thought, 'If I am light, then I am alright.'"

The end result was tragic. Motseledi's skin turned lighter for awhile, but she developed an unsightly skin condition. She receives treatment now, and her skin is improving. But she says, "If there is a party, I don't go because my skin is not nice."

The cream she used contained a damaging skin-bleaching chemical that the South African government banned from use in cosmetic products back in 1989.

An investigation by the Sunday Times newspaper published earlier this month found that creams with the same chemicals produced in Britain are now being imported into other African countries and shipped secretly into South Africa.

"I thought, this is all starting up again," says Hillary Carman, a Johannesburg dermatologist who helped mount the 1980s campaign to have skin-lightening creams banned.

South Africa's Medicines Control Council has vowed to shut down the smuggling operations but even one of its top officials, Peter Eagles, admitted this week that the Health Department does not have enough investigators to do the job.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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