“Oprah is my idol.”
Natalina Yacoub giggles when she talks, and her bursts of laughter are infectious. Stylish in her big hoop earrings and close-cropped blond hair, the 25-year-old exudes confidence — a confidence that has served her well in the seemingly impossible endeavor she’s taken on.
Yacoub is a beauty queen — named Sudan’s Miss Nuba Mountains in 2014 — and her triumph wasn’t merely over the 24 other contestants, but over something more profound: the deeply ingrained colorism in Sudanese society. She is a dark-skinned woman challenging a culture that promotes light skin as the female standard of beauty.
In some African countries, as many as three-fourths of women regularly use skin-lightening products. These products — available in stores, without a prescription — typically contain mercury, an ingredient that can cause serious health effects ranging from skin rashes and discoloration to scarring and kidney damage. Some skin-bleaching creams contain hydroquinone, a chemical found to have cancer-causing properties. Still, with a global market estimated at $10 billion, it is a rapidly growing segment of the beauty industry.
It wasn’t always so. The popularity of skin-lightening products — found in countries as far-flung as Brazil, India, China and the U.S. — is a relatively recent phenomenon. Hala al-Karib, director at the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, points to the 1980s, when globalization and sociopolitical change encouraged countries once proud of their diverse, tribal heritages to adopt a more homogeneous mindset. In Sudan, especially, the proximity to the Arabian Peninsula had a pronounced effect — shifting a country built on blended cultures toward one where diversity was seen as undesirable. To al-Karib, the trend is alarming. “People want to be Arab-looking to imitate what they see on their TV screens. Women have abandoned our traditional Sudanese tobe [body wrap] and are wearing black Arabian abayas,” she says. “This is not us. Moving away from our Africanness brings with it a dangerous inauthenticity. We have an identity crisis.”
Skin bleaching has become so common, Yacoub says, that she was even asked at the beauty pageant: “Why didn’t you change your skin color?” “At first I was cheeky and said to the judge, ‘Why didn’t YOU?’” Then she responded: “Because my color is my life message.”
A staggering number of Sudanese women are broadcasting a different message. In a 2016 study of female college students, 89 percent said they know the health dangers posed by skin lighteners, and 87 percent said they would still use them. Their reasons? To attract men, to look pretty, to gain self-confidence. One-third of respondents said simply: “Because white skin is more attractive than black skin.”
For meaningful change to happen, it must come from the grassroots, from the lower-class working women for whom bleaching is about survival more than just beauty.
Hala al-Karib, director, Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa
Born to a family with 12 children, Yacoub moved to the capital, Khartoum, at an early age. At university, she studied management, played on the basketball team and delivered the commencement speech at graduation. “My late father,” she says, “always told me I was special, that I’d be someone important one day. I took that to heart.”
Winning the pageant — she attended the annual Nuba cultural festival and entered on a whim — gave Yacoub instant visibility. From social media to speaking at local events and on campuses, she suddenly found her voice and wasn’t afraid to use it. “It emboldened me to see all these people interested in what I had to say,” she remarks. “I felt that I now had a platform.”
With that platform, she remembers channeling her idol, Oprah, to inspire her audience. “The speeches were supposed to be about me winning the pageant,” she reflects, but instead she told young women: “You’re beautiful. You don’t have to change your color. God created you beautiful.”
Then came the game-changing invitation in 2015 to present a TED talk, which she called “The Beauty Inside Each of Us,” and soon she was appearing on Sudanese television and in the international press.
Still, she harbored no illusion that her message would take in a country where 74 percent of college-age women have used skin-whitening products in the past year — even those in the health care field. Nadra Ahmed, a 46-year-old pharmacist, has used them for 20 years — “the safer, milder brands,” she says, “not the fast-acting creams, pills or injections that are becoming increasingly popular nowadays.” When women come in seeking advice, Ahmed tells them to be careful. “I understand them, but I warn them.”
As Yacoub’s following grew, the trolls came out. “They would write: ‘What are you trying to do?’” she recalls. “‘You think you can change the world? Black is ugly, white is beauty.’” Her response was to expand her social media presence even further — today she has almost 30K Facebook followers — posting anti-bleaching, self-love messages.
That’s all well and good, says al-Karib, but efforts like Yacoub’s won’t achieve much until they reach all Sudanese women — “not just those who have internet access or attend a TED talk or attend university.” Al-Karib has worked with female street tea merchants who tell her they must bleach to sell. “For meaningful change to happen,” she says, “it must come from the grassroots, from the lower-class working women for whom bleaching is about survival more than just beauty.”
For Yacoub, the greatest affirmation came in June 2017, when she was asked to join S24, a Sudanese TV channel, not as a guest but as a host. In a field where appearance is paramount, it was especially gratifying. “I, a dark-skinned woman, am now a host on a national show,” she beams. “That’s progress, right?”
Indeed, but can she reverse an entire society’s way of thinking? Of course not, and this firebrand knows that this is but the latest chapter in a decades-long story — but she’s prepared to write the heck out of it.
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