Exploring the effects of Eurocentric beauty standards on African women

Colorism is a problem that plagues women worldwide. In her recent mixed-media documentary, Yellow Fever, Kenyan filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii explores the effects of Eurocentric beauty standards on African women. In the short film, Mukii explores the damage that an obsession with lighter skin can afflict on women’s health and self-confidence. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Mukii about African women’s self-image and the inspiration behind the film.

How did you develop the idea behind Yellow Fever?

Well, I was working on my dissertation at the Royal College of Art, and I started investigating the way African people are presented in modern media, and how this might affect how we view ourselves.

Yellow Fever focuses on the effect of media-created ideals on African women and their perception of beauty. Our media is saturated (as is everyone’s) with beauty ideals that are hard to attain, often unhealthy and increasingly harp towards Western media’s current concepts of beauty: “bronzed” skin and long, flowing, soft silky hair. As you know, many Africans do not fit into this “ideal.” So in my film, I consider the things that we as African women practise in an effort to try and attain what are essentially globalised beauty ideals.

These include chemically straightening our hair, the use of hair weaves, skin “brightening” (bleaching), etc. I was particularly interested in discovering where the root of this pressure lays.

I realise we are only products of our society. Since our media perpetuates this singular ideal to our girls and women, and we consume this information continuously from a young age, how can we fault anyone who is susceptible to these ideals (men included), without challenging the institutions that are creating it? The title of the film is based on a Fela Kuti song, “Yellow Fever,” that attacks women who use skin-bleaching products (with the reduction of melanin the skin turns a yellowy tone). However, I use it to underline that I see this as a media-induced psychological condition, not very different to anorexia, bulimia, and other body-dysmorphia conditions that are recognised by medical institutions.

How do you think beauty standards vary among different generations in Kenya? 

Well I can only speak from the research I did. Within Yellow Fever, I interviewed three generations of women in my own family. My mother was talking about having many pressures as we were growing up to style us in particular ways. These included straightening our hair with chemicals once we were in our teens. She said that she just thought she “was doing the right thing.” I included my own accounts from growing up, when I had a condescending perspective of women who used bleaching products. I interviewed my niece who despite being so young at the time was already heavily influenced by Western ideals of beauty and wished for white hair and white skin. I think our family is a microcosm of the standards in Nairobi.

Why has skin bleaching become so popular?

There’s a lady who is very (in)famous here, called Vera Sidika. Many people in the media have attacked her for having bleached her skin and performing a number of surgeries to her body. She hit back saying that no woman would have to go through these procedures to feel beautiful and accepted in society were it not for society being attracted to and demanding that these specific beauty ideals were met. And I agree entirely with her words. All women are doing is trying to fulfill an aspiration set by our own society. If, for example, your skin tone and styling affects your work prospects, would you be at fault for trying to fit these ideals when it is in fact, to some extent, a matter of survival?

How do you think that we can combat the dominance of existing Eurocentric beauty standards?

I think it is necessary for those of us who are involved especially in the media to understand that we are taking part in creating ideals in the society at large. When you see casting calls, they sometimes include very specific requirements for the actresses including what skin tone they prefer them to have. When you watch the newscasters on our channels many of them have a light/pale skin tone and almost all of them wear weaves. We need more diversity. Women with deeper skin tones need to be present on our screens, and present in active main roles. On the 9pm news, as main actresses, as characters to whom we are endeared.

This is where actresses such as Lupita Nyong’o come into the light. The fact that she won an Oscar, has inevitably had a great influence on Kenyan performers. How many local actors aspired to such heights previous to that? Filmmakers? Suddenly the world was awash with her beautiful deep coffee skin for everyone to see and appreciate. And not just superficially, she is intellectual and socially engaged, and presents herself as a wholesome human being.

Unfortunately, since there are so few women of colour appreciated in Western media, she has a heavy cross to bear. We need more women of diversity present, continuously, to counterbalance the manufactured ideals. We have to counter the force of repetition which daily is reminding us what is perceived as being attractive and of value in women. We need women of different shapes and sizes, different skin tones and ages. Since we can not be in control of Hollywood, we should at least aim to influence our circles within our own societies.

Contact: Ng’endo Mukii