"I STRUGGLED to conceive and finally gave birth to a dark skinned baby. The doctor told me that my skin was too thin to be stitched. I had no option but to tell my husband that I had bleached it," said *Mrs Sandra Jones as she narrated her skin bleaching experience.
She spoke with her eyes fixed on her energetic baby. Noticeable features in their luxurious home are framed pictures of her and her husband, who are both light skinned (almost white) and their dark skinned daughter. The two-year-old resembles her father with the only difference being the skin tone.
While sitting on her black leather couch in the lounge, Mrs Jones vividly recalls how she was an outgoing, confident and "light" skinned woman living life without a care in the world until her secret was revealed. Mrs Jones has been married to her husband *Mike, a businessman, for the past seven years. The two decided to delay having children until January 2014 when they decided it would be "their year" to have a baby. After five years together, they felt they were ready to take the "first step".
Mrs Jones remembers how excited the couple was about having a baby and could not wait to hold their first born angel.
"It was as if I was pregnant already, and of course I thought it would happen for us straight away as I was only 26! It happened to all of my friends without concern and infertility was a problem for older people, right? After three long months of taking all my pre-natal vitamins such as folic acid, my husband and I started 'trying'. What struck me most in the beginning was this world of fertility advice that I never knew existed," she explained.
Mrs Jones said she considered herself a well-educated woman, although she did not know when in a woman's cycle ovulation occurred, how many fertile days she had per month, and she was certainly surprised to find out that cervical mucus played such a huge role in family planning.
"The first few months were exciting. I read numerous books, educated myself on all the latest research, and on many occasions obsessively googled 'early pregnancy symptoms' as every niggle and twinge I felt within my body was a sign that I was pregnant," she said while chuckling.
However, it wasn't long before the excitement turned to disappointment with test after test coming back negative. Initially, her cycle was irregular, so her period would come when she would least expect it. To her, this was a constant reminder of her failure to conceive.
"It was devastating. I cried many nights in my husband's arms. I felt as a woman, I was not functioning as I should. My husband reminded me that we were in this together as a team, however, this did little to comfort me," she said with tears welling up in her eyes.
Mrs Jones remembered how her doctor suddenly started explaining the effects of skin bleaching — which her husband said was "divorced from their burning issue of the failure to conceive".
"My doctor always explained that consistent usage of bleaching products over a long period could lead to kidney failure, cancer and infertility. Many women who use bleaching products may end up being infertile or get complications when they want to conceive," she said.
Mrs Jones said her doctor always tried to be diplomatic and divorced his comments from her complexion. "I think my doctor felt as if he was being unfair to me. If only he knew I was a victim of the subject, he could've explained the effects of skin bleaching deeper."
Mrs Jones said she was born dark skinned but was pressured by her friends at university to bleach and ended up becoming a "yellow bone".
"Every time the doctor explained how bleaching affects fertility, my heart bled because l knew bleaching had caused me to be infertile," she said.
Mrs Jones was devastated by the thought of having to face her husband and expose her lack of confidence in her own skin colour. But before she could tell him the truth about her complexion, Mrs Jones conceived and her husband could not wait to meet their child.
"It was like a nightmare. After our long struggle, I couldn't wait to hold our yellow angel. I had already started planning on how she would cope with the hot environment but it turned out to be a nightmare," said Mr Jones while holding their daughter *Molly.
Mrs Jones could not hide her shyness as she explained how her husband reacted when she gave birth to a dark skinned baby. This was contrary to her husband's expectations. Both of them were "yellow" and he expected nothing but a "yellow angel". He did not know that his wife's complexion was artificial and the baby would be a manifestation of her mother's true skin colour.
"In labour, I pushed while my husband watched. I just noticed him frowning as the baby came out and I knew something was wrong. The baby was dark just like her mother when she was born," Mrs Jones said while avoiding her husband's eyes.
Her true identity manifested as soon as she delivered. Baby Molly was a carbon copy of her mother before she bleached her skin. Mrs Jones said when doctors tried to stitch up the tears she got from delivering the baby, her skin was too thin to be stitched hence they would stitch her at her own risk.
"They told me that skin lightening products cause the skin to lose its natural protective barrier, making it vulnerable. They said infection spreads faster and broader, thus leading to skin cancer."
Mrs Jones recalled how she ended up fighting with her husband as he accused her of cheating.
"Mike always looked at our baby and said the child looked like his sister but questioned who was responsible for the skin tone. We are both light skinned and I would appreciate if she was brown not dark like this, Mike would often say."
Mrs Jones said she suffered a dilemma; whether to open up or get kicked out of her house. She recalled the day she finally told her husband the truth. "I was caught up in a fix and the only way out was to expose myself. I told him that I had bleached my skin and this was the reason I had difficulties conceiving. His reaction left me dumbfounded. I expected a blow from Mike but he started praising my beauty even with dark skin," said Mrs Jones.
She said at first he could not understand why his wife opted for bleaching, when she was just beautiful'.
"You know, when she gushed out her 'secret', I was surprised. If only she knew that she is beautiful and a chocolate skin would not reduce her beauty. In fact, I would appreciate it more if she had maintained the dark skin. Being coloured doesn't mean I am after 'yellow' women, African beauty is not in the lightness of the skin hence women should be proud of their skin tones," he said.
Mrs Jones is one of the many people, especially women, who have fallen into the trap of skin bleaching for different reasons.
"Skin bleaching dates back decades ago and research has examined how slavery, colonialism and westernisation in Africa especially, have resulted in its high prevalence. A long standing perception of white skin being that of people with power and wealth could be a sub-conscious reason. However, with very young black women who did not experience colonialism, there must be more reasons why this has become almost normal to do," wrote gender columnist, Ms Bongiwe Nkomazana.
The excessive usage of skin lightening products has perilous health effects such as cancer, skin discoloration, kidney and heart damage, brain damage and high chances of infertility, according to experts.
In separate interviews, health experts, beauty therapists and pharmacists said it is worrisome that some women are now "obsessed with skin bleaching" without knowing the far reaching implications of the practice. "It's worrisome that if you walk around town you always see 'yellow' women and it's clear that they are not aware of the effects of skin bleaching. They should not use skin lightening products because they result in heart and kidney failures, brain damage and a woman who bleaches has a high chance of becoming infertile," said Mpilo Central Hospital clinical director Dr Solwayo Ngwenya
He said African beauty is not in the lightness of the skin hence women should be proud of their skin tones. Dr Ngwenya said although many women bleach in Bulawayo, the hospital has never received a patient coming out clearly stating how skin bleaching is costing their health.
"We know some people bleach and their health is deteriorating but they will not come out clear and say this," he said.
Ms Amanda Patel, a Bulawayo pharmacist, said they receive an average of about six people per week asking for skin lightening products.
"We always tell them we don't sell such products unless they have prescriptions from a doctor. Some have turned medical lotions and creams such as Epiderm into skin lightening creams. People really don't understand the risks associated with these bleaching products as they cause excessive damage to the skin. The products waste away the melanin layer on one's skin making those using them prone to skin cancer and other ailments," she said.
Beauty therapist, Ms Leona Mpofu, urged women to use friendly creams that only remove dark spots and impurities on their skins.
"It's important for women to take care of their skins and enhance their beauty, but they must look for good creams. They can wear foundation, face powders to cover dark marks and still wash them off at night; this is safer than using skin lighteners."
According to research, skin bleaching highlights psychological complex issues that troubled African women for centuries like low self-esteem and low self-perception. Most women know the risks of applying skin lightening creams but choose to use them nevertheless.
Most men's concept of an ideal woman is one who is light skinned and has styled hair, research has shown.
* Not their real names