Amira Adawi, 43, always stood out as a child: Her skin was a little darker than the rest of her family. “Is this really your daughter?” said her mother’s friends. “She’s pretty, even though she’s very black.” It was often meant to be erotic, but the underlying message was clear: The lighter your skin, the prettier you are, says Adawi at a coffee shop in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. My mother was very much against it. She always said, ‘My baby is black and she’s beautiful.'”
The Somali-American grew up in Mogadishu, but has been living in the US since 2000. Last year, she traveled to her home country to research skin-whitening products. Creams and soaps make the skin lighter and are in high demand. Adawe shows widespread use and the type of products entering the market. Hard stats are hard to come by in the country, but their use has increased exponentially since my enemy originated in Mogadishu. Skin whitening products are especially popular with women. “In my months here, I’ve only come across two women who don’t use it.”
My enemy explains that this is not a harmless beauty craze. “This is a symptom of a deeper problem.” This problem is “colourism”: a form of discrimination in which lighter blacks are seen as more beautiful than darker blacks. The roots of colorism mostly go back to the colonial era, when European ideals of beauty became the norm around the world. But according to Adawi, the history of the Somalis goes back even further, to the days when the slave trade was controlled by the Arabs on the East African coast. Many Somalis prefer to consider themselves Arabs as Africans. Beauty and success are associated with fair skin.”
This alleged beauty is paid dearly. “The products are usually highly toxic.” Mercury and hydroquinone, two common compounds, in particular have dangerous side effects. “Face creams that contain mercury can cause depression, but also kidney problems.” Hydroquinone makes the skin less resistant to UV rays and many users experience skin discoloration that looks like a major burn. “Some of the users could no longer stand the heat. The women said they could no longer cook because they could not stand near the fire.”
Most Somalis are not aware of the risks. “Government, media and NGOs: no one is talking about this problem.” At the market in Mogadishu, she saw sellers use marketing tricks to sell their products. “They put a picture of an avocado on the packaging to give people an idea that the skin whitening products are natural.” Substances such as mercury and hydroquinone are often not listed in the ingredients list. And Somalis don’t have to turn to skin experts. “Pharmacists and dermatologists often sell the products themselves.”
Adwe fled with her family to the United States at the age of 19, where she, like many other Somali immigrants, settled in Minnesota. There too, skin whitening products can be found on every street corner. “The sellers in the market said to me, ‘If you were a little lighter, you’d be perfect.'” She also saw how widespread the colors were. “The products were used not only by Somalis, but by all classes of immigrants from Africa and Latin America.” Black Americans largely abandoned it several decades ago. In the 1980s and early 1990s, campaigns were launched within this community with a clear message: black is beautifulYou have to embrace your skin tone.”
After studying at the University of Minnesota, I made my fight against skin-whitening products her mission. In 2017, she founded The Beautywell Project, an organization that campaigns against toxic cosmetics among immigrant groups and communities of color in the United States.
In 2019, Adawe managed to convince Amazon to pull a long list of skin whitening creams from sale. “The FDA only started regulating skin-whitening products two years ago.” She says European rules are stricter and better enforced.
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Europe is an exception, especially in the Global South, where governments are often unable to handle the fast-growing skin whitening industry. Market researcher Global Industry Analyst has estimated the value of the industry at $8.6 billion – an amount that is expected to only increase in the coming years. Most of the factories are in China, India and Pakistan. “African countries are the biggest buyers.” In Somalia, products mainly come from Pakistan, and they are imported through Dubai.
“The sellers are not a hindrance here at all,” Adawi says. Toxic skin-bleaching products are also relatively readily available in Kenya, “but at least there are still rules there.” Skin creams containing mercury or hydroquinone are often banned. In Somalia, on the other hand, the market Free for all. As a result, Somalis are saddled with the most dangerous products. “Nowhere else have I seen products with so many dangerous ingredients.”
In Dubai, Adawi spoke with traders who market produce in Somalia. They are well aware of the risks. But they are merchants. Their answer is simple: the demand from African countries is very high at the moment. They are benefiting from it.” Some still feel some remorse. There were Pakistani sellers who asked themselves the question: We are Muslims, how do we sell this poison? Then they say they are trying to find alternatives. Then we got into a fierce discussion. .
Meanwhile, whitewashing is on the rise in Somalia. My enemy was particularly shocked by the number of young users: it had become completely normal in high schools and universities. “I spoke to a nine-year-old girl who was already bleaching her skin.” And it is no longer just women and girls who feel the pressure to live up to this toxic beauty. “I also see boys using it now. This is really new.” Two well-known Somali artists have bleached their skin. Social media also contributes to increasing the popularity of products among young men and women, according to Adawy. “On Tiktok, whitening creams are being promoted by influencers.”
Since last summer, The Beautywell Project has also been registered in Somalia. Adawe is trying to get the use of skin whitening products onto the political agenda. But legislation alone will not solve the problem. Certainly in Somalia, where the federal government has little influence, regulation will not have much influence. “The root cause must be addressed. And that is the colouring.”
My enemy thinks we should start with education. “Somali children should be taught in the classroom about the dangers of skin-bleaching products.” At the same time, the current Somali education system itself shows how deep the problem is, she explains. In colonial times, the British and Italians determined the content of lesson packages. Nowadays, the schools are mostly funded by the Gulf countries. “Especially from Saudi Arabia. Kids learn Arab history — not Somalia.” According to Adawy, the fight against colorism is about embracing personal identity: including culture, history, and skin color. “Not only are the products incredibly toxic — we’re also ridding ourselves.”