Beyoncé Knowles, 2012. Is skin bleaching consistent with indigenous African values? (source)
A Zambian-born sociologist visited his home village with his white American wife and two of their children. Having lost his way, he asked an elderly lady for directions. She gladly told him:
But then she said, addressing his boys in the car, in the Tumbuka bantu African language:
"Monile asungwana, muli uli?" ("Greetings girls, how are you?")
At first, the author was flustered as he assumed the woman could not see very well since the boys were sitting in the car and their full bodies and clothes were concealed from her. The author corrected her. She didn't seem perturbed at all. He thought to himself how could she or anyone not see that these boys had no breasts, were not wearing earrings, blouses, or dresses. His pubescent fifteen year-old had even the beginnings of dark whiskers around his chin. The author dismissed the incident and did not reflect on it again. But a couple of times again, total strangers at a glance, while the two boys were sitting in the vehicle, referred to them in the Tumbuka language as "asungwana" or "those girls". What surprised him was that these comments were not made in a mean way or out of visual perceptual error. (Tembo, 2010, p. 5)
He came back to the United States and began writing up an article about his visit. For this, he had to select a few photos from the hundreds he had taken of men, women, and children from the village. Only then did the answer to his puzzle dawn on him:
His children, who have quite pronounced features of a Sub-Saharan African, but are light skinned compared to many relatives in the village, stood out in all the group photographs. There was nothing unusual about this obvious reality. But then he noticed something very subtle; all women had lighter glowing ambience to their skins than men although both men and women had dark skin tones. Some women had a definite characteristic glow to their lighter dark skin compared to the other women and the men. (Tembo, 2010, p. 6)
Women are in fact lighter-skinned than men throughout the world, although this sex difference is larger in populations of medium color than in those that are very pale or very dark (Frost, 2007; Madrigal and Kelly, 2006; van den Berghe and Frost, 1986). Girls become lighter-skinned than boys from puberty onward, apparently as part of sexual maturation. For one thing, this post-pubescent lightening correlates in girls with the post-pubescent thickening of subcutaneous fat (Mazess, 1967). For another, it correlates with the digit ratio—a marker of the degree of prenatal estrogenization (Manning et al., 2004).
This sexual dimorphism is paralleled by a traditional tendency to associate women with the lighter end of the local spectrum of complexions. Hence, the ideal woman was said to be "white" in Europe and East Asia, "golden" in South-East Asia, and "red" in sub-Saharan Africa.
The term "red" may puzzle non-Africans. It actually means a reddish-brown-orange complexion, which is the lightest color that occurs locally in normal individuals:
[...] in the Tumbuka bantu African language people describe women's beauty saying: "Mwanakazi mswesi ndiye muwemi comene" which translates as "A woman who is red-skinned is most attractive". This is more accurate than what would be the conventional translation: "A woman who is light skinned is most attractive" (Tembo, 2010, p. 10).
When Africans speak of a beautiful woman, they may describe her as "red" or even "white," thus seeming to emulate European standards of beauty. On this point, Tembo (2010, p. 12) quotes the lyrics of a Zambian song from the 1950s, "Maggie":
Ndikonda miyendo yakoNdifiga yako
A literal translation would be:
I love your legsYour figure too
Maggie you are also
A white woman
Woyera does mean "white" but not in an ethnic sense. Maggie is simply an African woman with a naturally light complexion. Tembo argues that Africans and non-Africans alike have misconstrued this indigenous norm of female beauty as something that European colonialism has imposed. While not condoning skin bleaching, he argues that this widespread practice among modern African women is a logical consequence of indigenous aesthetic values.
A cultural norm for African women?
This female norm is attested in many other sub-Saharan societies:
The Bambara are not unmoved by the beauty of a woman's form; they can distinguish a well-formed body from a malformed one, a pretty woman from an ugly one, and they find a coppery skin more attractive than one of ebony black. (Henry, 1910, p. 217)
In skin colour they vary from black through chocolate brown to bronze, which the natives call "red" (bon-ze'e) and regard as the most attractive bodily hue. (Fortes, 1945, p. 7)
Light skin colour, referred to as "red", ranks high in the Hausa criteria of beauty; many variations of colour, from black to a very light reddish brown are seen. (Smith, 1965, p. 264)
In Ibo culture, however, these yellowish or reddish complexions are considered more beautiful than the darker, 'blacker,' complexions. [...] It is true that, in West Africa, government has for many years been identified with pale-skinned Europeans, but the Ibo evidence suggests that preference for paleness of complexion is indigenous. (Ardener, 1954, pp. 71-72)
Of the women and girls, some with babies, he kept the most beautiful in Zande eyes, those brightest of eye and clearest of skin and with full breasts, for his couch. (Evans-Pritchard, 1937, p. 60)
Men and women affirm without any hesitation that men are black, hot and hard and women are white, cold and soft. (Holy, 1988, p. 471)
Men appreciate women of good height and stature, with good hips and breasts, and plump but not fat. A reddish tinged skin is thought highly of in preference to a dark dull black. (Lewis, 1962, p. 13)
Masai (Kenya, Tanzania)
Further requirements for being regarded as beautiful are an oval face, white teeth, black gums, a skin color as light as possible ... (Merker, 1910, p. 18)
Rundi (Rwanda, Burundi)
Beauty does not count very heavily, but a man is not displeased if people notice that his wife is attractive and well-fleshed, has a long and narrow nose, a light skin, and is somewhat like a cow. (Albert, 1963, p. 203)
There is, in respect of the ordinary negroid complexion, a preference for paleness deeply rooted in the Ganda ideal of beauty. [...] The Ganda concept of skin pigmentation considers light coloured complexions to be differing shades of white. A dark brown skin colour is said to be eruyeru, that is, somewhat white. A really brown-reddish-yellow person is said to be mweru = white, which in comparison would be considered to be blonde; and this in the Ganda aesthetic language is considered as red = myufu, the most perfect skin pigmentation. (Lugira, 1970, pp. 34-35)
In the future the increasing use of skin lightening creams such as "Ambi" may eventually reduce the importance of natural skin color. But whatever the case, in Nairobi of the 1960's, as throughout much of Kenya, the lighter "brown" girls are usually considered to be more beautiful than "black" girls — and the more successful prostitutes are invariably "brown." (McVicar, 1969, p. 242)
Ila, Lunda, Luvale, and Chokwe (Zambia)
Here too words meaning literally "white" are commonly used to refer to light skins though "red" may also be used. Light skins are admired just as much as is shown to occur among the Ibo, and young girls discussing the possible attractions of various young men have often been heard to emphasize "very black" as a point against someone. In the past at least one attraction of a light skin apart from its intrinsic appeal was the fact that the tattooing stood out against it in strong contrast. Very black skins are not infrequently thought to go hand in hand with inherited witchcraft and a light skin to indicate its absence. Dark-skinned women conscious of their possible disadvantage have been heard to tell men that light-skinned women will be found to be sexually unsatisfying. (White, 1954)
Young men say that what they like in a girl is a light skin colour, a pretty face, and the ability to dance and to copulate well. (Barnes, 1951, p. 30)
[...] the generally admired type is a light-skinned girl of somewhat heavy build, with prominent breasts and large, firm buttocks. (Schapera, 1966, p. 46)
A cultural norm for African infants?
Lighter skin is a norm not only for African women but also for African infants. All humans, in fact, are born pale (Grande et al., 1994; Kahlon, 1976; Walsh, 1964). This pallor is a striking contrast to the darker color of adult Africans. In Kenya, newborn infants are often called mzungu ('European' in Swahili), and a new mother may tell her neighbors to come and see her mzungu (Walentowitz, 2008). Among the Tuareg, children are said to be born "white" because of the freshness and moisture of the womb (Walentowitz, 2008). The cause is often thought to be a previous spiritual life:
There is a rather widespread concept in Black Africa, according to which human beings, before "coming" into this world, dwell in heaven, where they are white. For, heaven itself is white and all the beings dwelling there are also white. Therefore the whiter a child is at birth, the more splendid it is. In other words, at that particular moment in a person's life, special importance is attached to the whiteness of his colour, which is endowed with exceptional qualities. (Zahan, 1974, p. 385)
Another Africanist makes the same point: "black is thus the color of maturity [...] White on the other hand is a sign of the before-life and the after-life: the African newborn is light-skinned and the color of mourning is white kaolin" (Maertens, 1978, p. 41).
What skin color originally meant to humans … and to ancestral primates
In sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps more so than elsewhere, we see the older, non-ethnic way of perceiving skin color, where darker skin means an adult male and lighter skin an infant or an adult female. Facial skin color can also signal whether a woman is younger or older, specifically through the degree of luminous contrast between her face and her lips or eyes (Porcheron et al., 2013). In this older perceptual system, skin color might unconsciously prepare the observer for situationally appropriate behavior, e.g., if the observed person is a woman or an infant, the mental threshold is raised for expression of aggressive impulses and lowered for expression of caring (Guthrie, 1970).
The pale skin of infants seems to be the oldest component of this system, being present even in non-human primates. Among langurs, baboons, and macaques, the skin is pink in newborns and almost black in adults (Jay, 1962). The infant coloration apparently does more than help parents find wayward offspring. As it disappears with age, juveniles no longer arouse the same interest, are less often sought out and held by adult females, and cease to arouse defensive reactions from adults when humans approach (Alley, 1980; Booth, 1962; Jay, 1962).
Although there are no primate species where the adult female has the infant's pink skin, there are some where fur coloration shows this kind of neoteny. Of the eight primate species where adult males and females differ in coat color, seven are characterized by persistence of the infant's lighter coloration into adulthood among females. Interestingly, 63% of these dichromatic species are monogamous, versus only 18% of all primate species (Blaffer-Hrdy and Hartung, 1979). By retaining a lighter infant-like color, the female might better cope with the riskier social environment of monogamy, which makes her more vulnerable to male aggression and to insufficient provisioning because of longer and more continuous cohabitation.
So why aren’t we all light-skinned?
If lighter skin is perceived as a female trait, even to the point of becoming an unconscious input for sex recognition, wouldn’t it be favored by sexual selection? And since skin color is only partly sex-linked, wouldn’t selection for lighter-skinned women end up lightening both sexes? Humans everywhere would have therefore lightened in color right up to the end point of white skin. So why hasn’t this happened?
There are two reasons: (1) sexual selection of women hasn’t been equally strong everywhere; and (2) this sexual selection has been offset to varying degrees by natural selection for darker skin.
First, sexual selection of women is weaker in sub-Saharan Africa because of the higher polygyny rate: 20-50% of all marriages in the West and Center and 15-30% in the East and South (Pebley and Mbugua, 1989). With too many men competing for too few women, the pressure of sexual selection is shifted from women to men, and selection is thereby weakened for desirable female traits. This may be why high-polygyny populations in sub-Saharan Africa are visibly darker-skinned than low-polygyny ones (Frost, 2008).
Second, sexual selection for lighter female skin can be offset by natural selection for darker skin—as a means to protect against UV and such adverse effects as sunburn, skin cancer, and loss of folic acid. This is especially true in the tropics. Since UV protection becomes less necessary farther away from the equator, Aoki (2002) has argued that the sex difference in skin color should become correspondingly larger, being less constrained by natural selection. In reality, it’s largest at medium latitudes among populations that are medium in skin color (Frost, 2007; Madrigal and Kelly, 2006). It’s actually smaller in white-skinned northern Europeans. This is probably because of a ‘ceiling effect’: in northern Europe, women are less able to become lighter-skinned than men because both sexes are already close to the physiological limit of depigmentation.
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