Dakar Fashion Week bans models who use skin lightening cream

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 July, 2013, 11:28am

Backstage at Dakar Fashion Week, a group of young women squeeze into impossibly high heels while others sit still as make-up artists paint their eyelids a shining emerald colour.

All legs and cheekbones, the models are subject to the same pressures as their counterparts in London, Paris and New York. And perhaps more.

Like many women from the streets of Senegal, some fashion models in West Africa have bleached their skin, seeking to achieve a "cafe au lait" colour regarded by some as the aesthetic ideal.

This year, however, Senegal's marquee fashion event is making a stand against the damaging practice.

"I am against it," says Adama Ndiaye, better known as Adama Paris, who started the annual fashion fête in 2002.

Ndiaye announced at this season's launch that she had banned any models using "depigmentation" cream from the six-day event.

"It's not even pretty," she says. "For me, it's just a turn off."

A local newspaper, Sud Quotidien, claims that more than 60 per cent of Senegalese women use skin bleaching products for non-medical reasons. Women of all classes and education levels use these often unregulated skin creams.

They bare the telltale signs of long-term bleaching: blotches of discoloured skin on their arms and faces.

"I'm trying to teach them to like themselves," says Ndiaye of the natural-toned models selected for this year's show.

Self-esteem is not the only issue at stake, according to dermatologist Fatoumata Ly.

Women often use prescription-strength corticosteroid creams to lighten their skin. "When absorbed into the bloodstream, corticosteroids pose serious risks, particularly for the heart," she says. Skin cancer is also a potential side effect.

This year's fashion week collections emphasised sleek minimalist designs, in forceful primary colours and jet blacks, with designs targeting international women. Models strutted in towering Louboutin platform pumps down a runway inside a luxurious nightclub.

The African designers showcasing their talents hailed Ndiaye's public stance at the event, which ended last Sunday.

Sophie Nzinga Sy, a couturier educated at the Parsons School of Design in New York, was infuriated when she saw billboards promoting skin lightening products around Dakar. "It was ridiculous," she says. "Our skin is something that we should value."

Sidling nervously between hair and make-up stations, models also expressed their support for Ndiaye's initiative.

"I think it's a great idea," says model Dorinex Mboumba. "It will discourage others from the practice. We don't need to change the colour of our skin to be beautiful."