In the 1980’s, many African women had black patches on their cheeks due to the side effects of a popular skin lightener on the market at that time. The largest numbers of people using skin lighteners in Southern Africa are women. However, men also use the products in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Tanzania. Of late, I have seen a number of adverts for skin lighteners in newspapers and on posters, even tied to trees on street corners. These are supposedly aimed at giving women a nudge in the direction which presumably will help them see “desired results.”
Where such products are not available in stores they can be bought elsewhere: on the streets of Johannesburg you can buy body enhancement products, especially skin lighteners, which are brought into the country illegally from places like Zambia and DRC.
Many women are constantly concerned about how they look and many go to extreme lengths to sculpt their bodies and other parts so they become “attractive” to others. From skin lighteners and vagina tightening creams to hip, bum and breast enhancement pills, the list has become endless for the ordinary woman on the street. The most preferred products in my Zimbabwean hood are popularly known as ap’etito. These pills, creams and soaps are said to be selling fast from street vendors. Is this not a threat to women’s health?
In a recent episode of Mai Chisamba Show, a talk show on Zimbabwe Television, many women testified about how such products had not worked for them. One frightening interview was with a woman who pointed out that “piritsi racho rino dhaka se drug” or “the pill will knock you out like a drug.” With such revelations coming from women’s lived experiences, does this not serve as evidence enough to show that these products will lead to ill-health or worse?
It is rare to see this type of investigation into harmful products; television typically only helps sell such rubbish. But women need to be given all sides of the story so they can make informed decisions or choices. Balanced discussions will give women more power over their bodies and appearances, especially as these products become much more widely available.
Mavis Nyamayaro a doctor and gender activist, recently said about vagina tightening creams: “what was once termed an elitist product for only those in Hollywood or in the high society has slowly eased its way into the groups of common women.” Yet expensive “professional” body alteration techniques have ensured that many African women resort to “back door” methods. Thus the socio-economic standing of women in Africa determines how they will change their bodies; whether rich or poor. The obsession with body alteration is now available and accessible for all; although for some it is much more dangerous. More money means one can undergo surgery or professional treatment which may be less risky and might allow an unsatisfied client to file a legal complaint should things go wrong.
Some professionals note that many of these products have severe side effects such as skin irritation and cancer. Many skin lighteners on the market contain hydroquinone, a compound which has been banned in Europe and many other countries. In one case a woman had to undergo a surgical operation after taking breast enhancement pills because one breast had become much firmer and larger than the other.
This debate encompasses more than the health question, it also brings to the fore a discussion of what it means to be beautiful. For such reasons as boosting self confidence and being attractive, women are subjected to a societal (historically a colonial) framing of beauty. Most women want to appear lighter when they are dark skinned; they want to have bigger and fuller figures when they are naturally small.
The very nature of our patriarchal society has entrenched norms that require women to preserve and enhance their beauty in order to appeal to men. As women we have also been socialised that we must always please the male species and so we subject our bodies to all sorts of chemicals in order to do so in the warped way we think will make our men happy.
Some women argue we should take charge of our sexuality. Yet what does this mean in our society, one in which we see women voluntarily resorting to cheap and unsafe ways of becoming “beautiful” and “attractive”. Women thus remain prisoners of their own bodies. We should learn to be authentic and truthful to ourselves; to embrace the beauty we were born with.
Women need to be made aware of the dangers of body enhancement, both physical and psychological. They might then understand how the choice to attempt it is intertwined with the choices they make about other aspects of their identity. The relentless pursuit of what society deems to be beautiful and attractive may be one way of claiming power, but women should also be encouraged to claim such power from within.
Tarisai Nyamweda is a Zimbabwean journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.