Amira Adawe has just arrived at a Somali-American community radio station in Minneapolis where she hosts a weekly call-in show called Beauty-Wellness Talk. After peeling off her winter jacket, Adawe slides a pair of headphones over her crown of dark, short curls. "Hello? As-Salaam-Alaikum," she says into the foam mouth of her studio microphone. An anonymous stream of listeners starts calling in to confide about a subject that is deeply personal and also taboo — skin bleaching. Adawe is a Minnesota-based public health researcher and educator who works as a manager in Gov. Mark Dayton's Children's Cabinet. In 2011, while a graduate student and health educator with St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health, Adawe proposed a study to investigate how Somali women use skin bleaching creams in their daily lives. Growing up in Mogadishu and Minneapolis, Adawe knew that skin lightening was widespread in her community.
"A lot of it ties to colonization," Adawe says. "Certain skin colors were more accepted in the society. But through the years, it became so embedded in the culture to where it's become normal. If you're light-skinned, you're more accepted," she says.
She had trouble finding women who were willing to be interviewed. Adawe says there's a stigma around admitting to skin bleaching. "Women don't want other women talking about them. They want to pretend that this is their natural color," she says.
Adawe suspected that the fast-acting creams contained toxic chemicals, and she was right to be suspicious. Out of 27 different creams tested by Minnesota researchers as part of Adawe's study, 11 contained mercury levels ranging from 4.08 up to 33,000 parts per million (ppm). (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration only allows mercury in amounts of less than one part per million in most cosmetics.)
The FDA classifies skin whitening creams as both a cosmetic and a drug. According to FDA spokesperson Peter Cassell, the "use of mercury in skin-bleaching preparations and other cosmetics, with few exceptions has been prohibited in the U.S." since 1973.
"The FDA has been aware of mercury as a potential allergen, skin irritant and neurotoxin for decades," Cassell says.
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The seven Somali women Adawe interviewed for her study reported mixing several different creams into one concoction and storing it in the refrigerator. Some slathered the cream mixture over their bodies multiple times a day, even while pregnant or breastfeeding. These findings alarmed Adawe. The possibility that children or developing babies could potentially ingest mercury through breast milk or contaminated food or water was especially concerning.
Skin bleaching products can also contain steroids, which thin the skin, as well as hydroquinone, a suspected carcinogen that is banned in some countries.
"That is a really huge public health issue. That mercury vapor alone can expose everybody in the home, even people who visit. That was really shocking to me," Adawe says.
Despite FDA regulations, toxic skin lightening creams are accessible in the United States. The products get smuggled past borders through personal luggage and can be found in ethnic markets and also online.
A global market Globally, skin bleaching is a multibillion-dollar business. According to a 2017 market research study by Global Industry Analysts, the market for skin lightening products is anticipated to exceed $31 billion by 2024, with the Asia-Pacific region representing the fastest-growing market.
Adawe was surprised to learn that skin bleaching is such a global phenomenon. "I was so focused in the Somali community and other African communities that I didn't know this was happening in other places," she says.
Seventy-seven percent of women in Nigeria use skin lighteners, more than anywhere else in the world, the World Health Organization reported in 2011. In 2004, nearly 40 percent of women surveyed in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea reported using use skin lighteners, and in India, 61 percent of the dermatological market is comprised of skin lightening products, according to the same WHO report.
As Adawe continued to sound an alarm about skin bleaching, she realized that warning people about the health risks of toxic chemicals wasn't necessarily enough to change behaviors. So long as the belief that lighter skin is inherently preferable persisted, women would likely keep bleaching, she thought. So she decided to tackle the issue from another direction.
Radio outreach Adawe launched her radio show, Beauty-Wellness Talk, in November 2017. It's a platform where the Somali community can talk openly about skin lightening without fear of being outed or stigmatized. From the beginning, Adawe made it clear that listeners could call in anonymously.
On a recent wintry Saturday afternoon, Adawe's in-studio radio guest is Hibat Sharif, an educator and outreach worker with St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health. They're discussing how parents can build healthy self-esteem in their children, especially girls.
"We're African, we're Somali, we have dark skin," says Sharif in a mix of Somali and English. "Our skin is melanated. It provides us with a lot of benefits. Why are we telling our girls: You'd look so much better if you were lighter? It's important not to put those toxic stereotypes in your child's head."
Sharif cautions listeners about words that reinforce harmful stereotypes, such as cadey, a Somali expression of endearment. Questioning word choices
"That word is really heavy," explains Salma Ali, 19, a Somali-American college student who grew up in the Twin Cities area. Her friend, Yusra Abdi, also 19, agrees.
"It means whitey. Like white girl," Abdi says. "You will never hear anybody say madoowey, which is 'darky.' If anything, that would be an insult in the Somali language." Colorism is personal for both Abdi and Ali, who describe themselves as dark-skinned. "Growing up, if somebody in my family was mad at me, they'd call me koor madow, which means, 'Hey darker-skinned,' " explains Ali. "And it was an insult," she adds.
Family members pressured Ali and Abdi to use lightening creams. When Abdi was in middle school, her mother gave her a lightening gel to help with acne scars. After about a month, she noticed her complexion had lightened and her acne marks had worsened. She decided to stop.
"When women use these products, it comes from a very deeply ingrained place of insecurity," Ali says. "It's because of what society pushes on us to believe. Across all cultures, darker-skinned people have self-esteem issues."
Both Ali and Abdi say that they've seen Somali women obfuscate their use of skin lightening products by describing the practice as cleaning their skin or helping it to glow.
"I've had my aunts come up to me telling me, 'Salma you're not ugly, it's just that your skin is just a little dirty. You need to clean it up. I got some products from China. I'mma hook you up.' I'm like, 'How is my skin dirty? I'm taking care of myself.' But because of the fact that I have darker skin, I'm seen as ugly. And that's just part of the way we've all been socialized."
Adawe wants to disrupt that socialization, but changing ingrained behaviors and perceptions takes time. She sees medical providers as key partners in actualizing systemic change. Over the past six and a half years, Adawe says she and her colleagues have trained more than 100 clinic systems, with a focus on pediatric care.
She advises doctors and nurses not to ask patients about skin bleaching directly, but instead to probe slowly and with sensitivity about the different lotions women use. Nurses who conduct home visits with pregnant women can play an especially important role since they build a relationship with mothers over time and can see if skin lightening products are being kept in the home.
On a Thursday afternoon in mid-February, Sharif, the outreach worker, stands in front of a class of Somali, Hmong, Nepalese and Karen adult students and their translators. The students are all new arrivals to the United States. The class hums with a staccato melody of different languages.
"The No. 1 thing you can do is to stop using these products," Sharif tells the students in English and Somali. "The biggest takeaway from this presentation is that every shade is beautiful," she says.
A Somali man in the class says it's been ingrained in him to gravitate toward lighter-skinned women.
Sharif laughs and says, "The change needs to start with you. It really does."
She asks him if he has dark-skinned daughters, and the man says he does.
"What does that say to your daughter?" Sharif says when reflecting on the exchange after class. "Do you want a guy to treat your daughter that way where he tells her she's not beautiful because she's dark?"
"You have dark skin and you are beautiful"
Salma Ali says she had low self-esteem when she was younger. It's something she thinks a lot of darker-skinned young women experience. Things shifted in high school when she started reading books by black women writers and found inspiration in seeing black women actors play strong leading roles on television.
Social media helped Ali and Abdi to find affirming messages about black beauty as well. Both of them are fans of black women beauty vloggers like Jackie Aina and Alyssa Forever whose YouTube channels attract millions of views. They credit Rihanna for leading the way with releasing a makeup line with many different shades for darker-skinned women.
"It can really change the way you think about yourself and the way you see the world," says Ali about social media. "I really do have hope for this next generation of darker-skinned women who want to be represented. Who want to be uplifted and celebrated for our skin. You have dark skin and you are beautiful. I really want that to be a cultural norm," she says.
Adawe says that after working on this issue for nearly seven years, she's starting to see hints of change. More people are talking, disagreeing and questioning colorism out in the open. "All of that didn't exist before," she says. "All of that helps."
Adawe is now writing a curriculum for teachers. Her next step is to take the conversation into the schools.
"This is going to need systemic change," says Ali, who is studying sociology with a focus in health care and a minor in public health and neuroscience at the University of Minnesota. "I feel like it's something that's so within us that it's going to take a while. It's going to take some work." Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.