KHESSAL – Skin Whitening in Senegal

Somehow we humans are never happy with what we have.

Women with curly hair want it straight and those with straight hair want it curled.

In Europe, America, Australia, we use bronzing creams to attain a more ‘beautiful’, tanned skin, while in the whole African continent, in India in China, Thailand, Japan, women (and men as well) are considered more beautiful, the whiter they are.
Every culture has a different definition of beauty. I wonder who decides what is beautiful and what not? Is it the influence of the media? Is it fashion and its continuous changes? Is it tradition and historical background? Or is it simply the influence of society, of family and friends? I think it is a mixture of all these things.

After having lived in Senegal for ten months, I have heard a lot about Khessal. Firstly, almost all Khessal creams destroy the skin. I have seen so many women with discoloured, damaged skin; their feet and hands are white but there are little black spots everywhere, while the rest of their body is their natural skin colour. It is sad to see a woman destroy her skin (and in this process making it actually worse) just in order to become whiter.
The fact that skin whitening creams destroy your skin is widely known, however women continue to use them. One young women I spoke to told me that “one just hopes that it won’t happen to us. Not all creams damage the skin, so we just take the risk.”
One of my very good friends works in a cosmetics agency and sells Khessal creams (i.e. makes Khessal creams). When I asked him if he thought whether skin whitening was something good or bad, he just said that “it is the client that makes the choice, I just sell the products and make money.” But when I asked him if he thought women to be more beautiful after they had done the Khessal he told me that “women are beautiful as they are. There are many beautiful ‘coal-black’ women.”
Senegal is a country rich in languages and ethnicities. There are the Serere, the Wolof, the Toukouleur, the Diola, the Mandinko, the Manjaque and many other tribes. The Toukouleur, who have the lightest skin of all ethnicities have had a history of supremacy over the other ethnicities, while the Diola and the Serere, who are the darkest skinned, have always and still are being placed ‘at the bottom’.
Several men with whom I have spoken have told me they want a ‘djiguene bou khes’ (which means a ‘light-skinned’ woman in Wolof), because these are the most beautiful women.
In the end however, I don’t think that a man choses his wife due to skin shade. And if he does, then that is not true love and one will never be happy in one’s marriage.
I have heard women say ‘he is so ugly’, simply because the man they were talking about was very dark. When you meet someone however, when you talk to that person, when you laugh with that person, does it matter what their skin shade is?
What truly attracts people is their personality. If you are beautiful, but arrogant, selfish etc., people will move away from you after having seen your character.
One day one of my friends told me how the older generation used to do khessal… Women used to put petroleum cream (that invisible cream similar to Vaseline which smells of petrol) upon their whole body. Then they would but layers of clothes upon their bodies, most often sport training jackets and pants and would sit in the sun so they would sweat a lot. They would sit like that for several hours, then remove everything, wash their bodies and find themselves whitened.
What they did not know was that in fact the petroleum cream burns away their skin, removing several layers and excessively damaging their skin tissue. When the skin gets exposed to the sun, especially the hot Senegalese sun, it darkens naturally. Which means that after a few weeks these women would go through the whole procedure again. When I take the ‘car rapide’ (Senegalese public transport) I see so many old women, their skin completely ruined…
It is the fault of society and the media that people continue to do Khessal. Senegalese publicity spots should more often place darker skinned women and men as a representation of ‘beauty’.
When this will happen I have no idea…

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