Dencia, Lupita and the Struggle to Redefine Black Beauty

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by Lyndsey Ellis

I had a friend in middle school who hated her skin. She was always poking at herself in the mirror, dying to be that celebrated redbone with fine hair and big thighs. She was one of the first girls I knew who started wearing foundation, and it was always several shades lighter than her natural tone. She didn’t even like to use lotion because she thought it made her look all shiny and "Buckwheat-ish."

The funny thing was that I, and probably the entire school, thought this girl was beyond perfection. She was tall and shapely with thick hair. Her eyelashes curled over on their own, and the dimples in her cheeks made her whole face sparkle when she smiled. Plus, she was popular, had a cute boyfriend, and made the Honor Roll every quarter.

One day, I got curious and asked my friend what she thought about my appearance since she obviously didn’t see herself in the best light.

“At least you’re smart,” she told me.

That hurt deeply. What hurt even more was her hesitation before she spoke, the careful way she chose her words. We were good friends so I guess it was important for her to rip me nicely. Needless to say, I didn’t respond and we eventually ended up growing apart. She’s rarely crossed my mind over the years unless something specific triggers a memory.

And, this year, something did.

Dencia, a Nigerian-Cameroonian pop singer, made headlines in early January after launching a new skin care line called Whitenicious. The product caused an outrage in the black community because of its promotion as a skin whitening cream.

Skin lightening is a controversial practice known to help reduce the production of melanin. The method is nothing new and can be traced back to the Elizabethan Age (circa 1500’s). While Asia currently has the largest market of skin lighteners, global sales are expected to reach almost $20 billion by 2018 with Asian, African, and Middle Eastern cultures in the lead as consumers of these products.

Dencia, an African woman who went from a rich chestnut brown at the beginning of her music career to the chalky beige tone that we see today, admits she’s selling a cream with a name that she chose because of the color white’s association with purification. Her process is also wrapped up in flowery, deceptive language meant to make consumers believe that it’s just eliminating dark spots, or in the words of the young entrepreneur, “getting rid of these little things that make them feel uncomfortable.”

 So, when is a person’s entire black body considered a dark spot? When did hyperpigmentation and low self-esteem start having the same meaning?

As the controversy over Whitenicious continues to escalate, Dencia’s explanations also continue to unravel. She constantly talks in circles to justify her moves and often gets defensive when asked about her living as a dark-skinned girl in the past or if she thinks the product is detrimental to the psychological well-being of African and African-American women. A few times, she’s tried to shut the conversation down by saying the ramifications don’t concern her, especially when it comes to the insane amount of money she claims to get from the product’s sales.

I’ve gone from being completely livid at Dencia to feeling enormous sympathy for her. After all, she’s a product of society’s white-is-right views that have haunted black culture for a long time. And, as ignorant as she sounds, Dencia does bring up a good point: the ‘in-between’s’—those that don’t fit into the high yellow bracket or the exotic black category—of our culture aren’t typically held in high regard by Europeans or many white Americans and, as a result, are less likely to advance in public fields like the entertainment business. To succeed, one must always be the extreme on either side of the color spectrum. Otherwise, there’s nothing special about you.

The evils of post-colonial slavery may be over, but unfortunately, the disturbing mentality that lingers must run its course. Dencia represents a global epidemic that says lighter is better. People like her have made skin bleaching sexy, a social ticket worthy of being accepted and praised. It’s no longer closeted behavior that’s being done but not talked about.

However, having skin bleaching in the limelight is calling attention to the damaging mindset that still exists in our culture. It’s also causing more people to speak out and stand up for what’s right. Lupita Nyong'o, for instance, publicly denounced Whitenicious at the 7th Annual Essence Black Woman Luncheon last week. The overwhelmingly positive strides she’s made in both the fashion and Hollywood industries opened yet another door for women of color as she revealed her childhood desire for lighter skin, a painful memory that surfaced after reading a fan’s letter on how Nyong'o’s presence stopped her from buying Whitenicious.

I wish I’d had Nyong'o’s strength that day when my friend made me second-guess my beauty as a young, black woman. As time progresses, I’m hopeful that more women of African descent will be more vocal about putting this imploding self-hatred in our communities to an end. All our futures depend on it.

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