Edward Ademolu asks if skin bleaching tablets for foetuses in Ghana are any different from embryonic engineering in the west

A report from the BBC News Africa revealed that the Ghanaian Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) have condemned the growing trend in the use of the skin-bleaching agent, glutathione, among pregnant women to lighten the skin of their unborn children. While nothing is yet known about the extent to which these expectant mothers use this complexion-lightening product, which can be ingested as an oral capsule or administered directly on the skin itself, it is thought to be growing increasingly prominent in unregulated – and un(der)surveillanced – West African cosmetic markets. Addressing this issue at a media function, FDA’s head of cosmetics and household chemicals, Emmanuel Nkrumah, advised against the unprecedented use and endorsement of these antioxidant pills, saying that “the use of these drugs has gone to an alarming stage”. While further stressing that “[The only things] you [should] take orally should be food, toothpaste and mouthwash, and not bleaching pills”.

Photo from BBC News.

Despite not being FDA-approved for public consumption – not least to lighten the skin of an unborn child for whom informed authorisation and voluntarism is unguaranteed, presumed and unsolicited – reportedly, large quantities of glutathione are illegally distributed in Ghana, often through airport luggage. Even though, as medical professionals advise, glutathione can have adverse and sometimes life-limiting implications on melanin production, kidneys, liver and nervous system. Intensified also, by the product’s cancer-causing properties.

But what’s the fuss? Yes, okay, there are ethical, moral and of course medical implications, tied into this practice which can-and-should-not be underestimated – especially regarding child welfare, rights and sovereignty of choice. However, isn’t this just another example of God-circumventing parents, custom-designing their much-awaited child to meet bespoke preferences? I mean, we are all aware of largely middle-class expectees repackaging, upgrading, “copy, cut-and-pasting”, and genetically modifying their unborn’s blueprint. Whether that’s deselecting brown eyes, opting for blond hair, contemplating over boy or girl – or perhaps both, and eliminating perceived abnormalities. From the fertility clinics of the well-to-do Beverly Hills or our very own ultra-exclusive, well-heeled Harley Street – there is a certain normalising and medical legitimisation of modifying foetuses in contemporary western societies. This seemingly quick-fix, insta-friendly and well-studied solution exists as one of many luxuries, and ‘optional-extras’ afforded to parents with enough discretionary income to edit their child as far as their money can reach, and as wide as their recourse to safety precautions. However, the same cannot be said for these Ghanaian women, whose unregulated skin bleaching practices are more experimental than tested – considered largely a necessity than a well-paid luxury – and whose risk of harm (and death) to their unborn and themselves, are seemingly much higher given no or limited availability to medical expertise and aftercare, as we enjoy here.

So, isn’t it just the same? You know same thing different package?

In short, the answer is no, it isn’t – if only it was that straightforward. This so-called “trend” in the use of skin-lightening tablets by Ghanaians is more than the presumed trivialities and superficialities, and in a large number of cases the medical necessities of, embryonic engineering. Rather, it is a shameful realisation of the bowing pressure of widespread colourism. An age-old issue, historicised and sculpted by colonialism, experienced by, and most pronounced in black and brown countries and their globally-dispersed diaspora.

For the uninitiated, colourism (or shadism) is an intra-racial complexion-based hierarchy, that often affords societal, cultural, economic privileges and favouritism for/towards lighter-skinned people and discrimination against those with darker complexions. Some academics have even proposed that this may influence a persons’ life chances as much as ‘race’ itself.

Photo from Wikimedia.

You see, for these Ghanaian women – and men, in fact many black people, – waffle and honeycomb, are assumed respectable hues of black-and-brown-ness, bestowed with a certain cultural palatability, and a seemingly unproblematic approximation to Whiteness. Allowing the light-skinned bearer to (re)negotiate and manoeuvre through the often-tricky terrain of a racialised and hierarchically-shadist society. Blackness in its light-bright form, is the aspirational benchmark for an unquestioned beauty, an unscrutinised attractiveness that is always disclaimer-free and divinity-bound. To be light is to be gawked over, adorned-and-adored, preserved-and-paraded, a rarity that necessitates commodification. This spectacle (and burden) of the fair-skinned is felt most intensely for women, doubly so, when accompanied by Western preferences for autumnal eyes, pinched nostrils and straightened un-woolly hair, that is neither crowned or wingspanned, and which does not enwebb the downward-running of fingers.

You see, light-black-and brown-ness, is the antidote for everything ontologically deficient, culturally maladaptive and aesthetically-displeasing about dark skin. However, it’s not just a matter of the “cosmetic” but also “social optics” – the allusion and illusion of social economic status, wealth and privilege. I’m almost certain that these pregnant women are taking skin-bleaching agents to increase and secure better socio-economic lives for their children – and I can’t blame them for thinking and wanting this. While it troubles my unsolicited moral and ethical evaluations of these women, it is not beyond my comprehension and sensibilities to understand why they may want to invest or – rather ingest – in this slice of fair-brown pie – in pill form, or otherwise. Especially if it propelled social mobility, imbued a preferred economic distinction or afforded a certain ease in a child’s movement throughout the world. As such, albeit problematic, can we conceive this phenomena as a survival strategy? Or some kind of intergenerational investment, with lightness being the return?

What I do know is, colourism, has caused a colonial-brainwashing, an inferiority/superiority in-fighting among and between black and brown communities, who readily, often unconsciously, prostrate to ideological servitude. It is within this context, that issues of bleaching affect women the most – both psychologically and physically – as they operate under the weighted-burden of unattainable European beauty standards in a way that their non-black and brown peers do not.

Photo from Wikimedia.

This case, at the very least, implores a psychological liberation from our interpellated mentalities. We, – including the communities of my own country Nigeria – need to redecorate the interiority of our minds to make room for new psychological furnishings. Only then can we truly sit comfortably with the “Self” and bask in the unremitting glory of our complexions. This reconciliation with ourselves – our “come-to-Jesus moment” – has no tonal gradient scale but is nonetheless still elevating.


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Edward Ademolu is a doctoral researcher in International Development at The University of Manchester. His doctorate and research interests are centred on the politics of visual representation, with a particular focus on development/humanitarian representations of Africa and African diaspora by NGOs, Western news reporting and contemporary mainstream media. His broader interests include works on race, black minority identities, postcolonial discourse and criticism, as well as, The New Social Studies of childhood and anti-oppressive discourses in Social Work practice. My research summary, audio presentation. Tweet him @ed_ade1


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