Ghanaians Equate Beauty With Looking White
by Ibram Rogers
Jun 19, 2006, 03:00
The European aesthetics of beauty and social rank have reached the shores of Africa, and are wreaking psychological and physical havoc on residents of Accra, Ghana, two new studies suggest..
In two examinations conducted last summer by Dr. Jocelyn Mackey, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University, more than 200 Ghanaian students aged 8 to 18 consistently equated attractiveness, opportunity, power and acceptance with lighter skin color.
“The results from this study speak to the impact that the social and cultural climate has on the self-esteem of the Ghanaian students,” Mackey says. “But you also have to keep in mind that Accra is the capital city and its population has been more exposed than most of the country to Western culture and its ideals of beauty and success.”
Another study reveals that many Ghanaians are turning to harmful skin-bleaching products to lighten their skin in hopes of being perceived as more attractive and successful.
Yaba A. Blay, a doctoral candidate in Temple University’s African-American studies department, conducted a study last summer in which she surveyed approximately 600 residents of Accra and interviewed another 40 who reported bleaching their skin. Blay also interviewed government officials, medical personnel and product merchants, and reviewed public documents and media materials as source material for her dissertation, “Yellow Fever: Skin Bleaching and the Aesthetico-cultural Gendered Politics of Skin Color in Ghana.”
“Despite attempts by the Ghanaian government to ban bleaching products and the extreme health risks — including skin cancer, brain and kidney damage and sometimes death — the practice of skin bleaching is seemingly on the rise,” says Blay, a native of Ghana. “It appears that in the context of global White supremacy, skin bleaching represents an attempt to gain access to the social status and mobility often reserved not only for whites, but for lighter-skinned persons of African descent.”
This psychological phenomenon of extolling lighter skin is not exclusive to the Ghanaian capital city, Mackey says. Similar beliefs are present within populations in Central and South America, Italy, the Caribbean, India and Asia, as well as in the United States.
“These perception are the result of learned behavior and beliefs due to social factors and opportunities,” Mackey says. “Many Ghanaians who I spoke with believe that lighter skin is associated with wealth and power.”
Similar to the widely publicized Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll study in the 1940s, Mackey asked students in one public and one private school in Accra to relate qualities such as attractiveness, familiarity, wealth, nurturance, academic ability and social acceptance to the skin color of the dolls. In the first study, Mackey instructed the students to attach the qualities to one of five dolls who were placed on a continuum from very light to very dark skinned. And in the second study, the students just had the choice between the darkest-skinned and the lightest-skinned dolls.
Practically across the board, the lighter-skinned dolls were given more positive attributes. One notable exception was with regard to the “smartest” dolls. In the first study, the darkest-skinned dolls were a close second to the lightest. But in the second study, the darker-skinned dolls were considered the smartest. Nevertheless, the lighter dolls were more associated with going to college and getting the best grades.
In terms of demographics, older students and males tended to favor the darker dolls more than their younger and female counterparts, Mackey says. And the private schools students were slightly more likely to select the lighter dolls in the second study.
In the study on skin bleaching, Blay found that Ghanaian women tend to bleach their skin at a disproportionately higher rate than Ghanaian men. That’s because the white ideal is consistently promoted to female consumers, Blay says.
Furthermore, Blay says the rational for skin bleaching is different for Ghanaian men and women.
“Ghanaian women often admit to bleaching in order to look more beautiful, noticeable and fashionable, while Ghanaian men who report bleaching do so as a means to appear of higher status and to gain more respect,” she says.
Ultimately, Blay says that a form of “commodity racism — the practice of using Whiteness to sell products to predominately Black consumers” is the underlying reason for the practice of skin bleaching.
“It has greatly influenced Africans’ perceptions that with the assistance of particular products — bleaching creams — they can approximate Whiteness, and as such reap all of the benefits, whether actual or perceived, afforded to Whiteness,” she says.