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Netflix's Skin: Colorism in Nigeria and Beyond

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

Beverly Naya is a British-born Nigerian actor and producer of the documentary Skin, now on Netflix. The documentary explores the way in which colorism has affected the lives of women in Lagos, Nigeria. Colorism is different from racism. Colorism is the way in which lighter skin tones are desired and darker skin tones are discriminated against within a race.

The focus of the film is on how colorism has affected women, specifically African women. In Nigeria 77% of women use skin lightening products. Throughout the documentary Naya seems to be searching for what has led to the development of colorism. She interviews doctors, actors, children and street vendors. While it is difficult to name a direct cause, the documentary seems to arrives at a few lines of reasoning. The first being colonialism and the idea of white being superior. It goes further to show the way white has been associated with qualities like purity and innocence throughout religion, literature, and other aspects of culture. Over time colonial influence has created associations of light skin with success and desirability and a lot of it is so deeply ingrained it is unconscious. One Nigerian schoolgirl says, "I like light-skin because its making me more special. I don't like Black skin…I'm Black but not Black-Black". The act of lightening one's skin in the case of Nigerian women seems to revolve around the pressure of making oneself desirable. Many of the interviewed women explain that the reason they bleached their skin was in order to please men.

The actors that Naya interviews speak about their own experiences and struggles with skin color. Actor Diana Yekinni talks of her own struggle with never having her skin be perceived as beautiful. When it comes to her work she talks of how she was told being light-skin would be better for her career. Too often actors of color are told they are too dark or light for the role. Eku Edewor a presenter and actress speaks about her struggle with casting, "Is this about color? Or is this about character? If this character is a strong female, I'm a strong female". The attitude of darker skin being less desired manifests itself into the way dark skin is photographed for film.

When film was first used the chemical processes for developing the film were based on white skin. This resulted in photographs that would alter the appearance of the Black subjects in the photo. The photos would either be under or over exposed. This is an issue that perseveres today. When white or light skin is held as the standard other skin tones become after thoughts. Dark skin is often not properly lit in film, or actors makeup makes them look lighter than they are. Only recently have darker makeup shades started to be produced on a mainstream scale.

The skin lightening industry is currently worth $23 billion. The market supplies pills, toners, creams, all with the purpose of lightening/bleaching the skin. While the documentary focuses on Nigeria colorism is something that exists throughout the world and extends to all races. With the skin bleaching industry profiting globally. In the past month, Johnson and Johnson have stopped sales on two of their skin lightening products, hopefully this trend will continue.

The documentary begins with the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of beauty, society's narrow definition of what can be claimed as beauty needs to expand. Almost every woman interviewed regretted lightening their skin. Many admit to their low self-esteem being the reason. This is why it is important to work to continually uplift dark skin as beautiful. Naya says, "From a young age we need to start affirming the beauty of dark skin so that girls can grow up confident in being Black. If we don't do that they will pick up the wrong information elsewhere".


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