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Marita sits on a stool at her stall in an open market just outside Harare. She is counting brightly-coloured sweets and placing them carefully into a bag. Her neighbour on the right sells packets of big fresh potatoes and tomatoes, and on her left is another market woman, Tarisai, perched behind baskets of fresh bananas.

The sweets are only a cover for Marita’s real business. Hidden at her feet is a cardboard box filled with glossy tubs of lotion and pill packets. One by one, customers take turns to visit Marita’s table with an orderliness you rarely see in an open market. Marita receives dollar after dollar in exchange for the creams and pills. In no time at all she runs out of stock, and she makes a call to a contact to ask for more products. From the conversation, I gather that she’ll be lucky to get another box any time soon because normally the stocks run out fast. She may even need to wait another week until the next consignment comes in from Zambia. I decide to strike a conversation with Marita to understand more about her “under the table” business.

Diproson, Movate, Betasol, Carolight, Lemonvate, and Extra Clere are skin whitening creams sold illicitly at street markets in many towns and business centres in Zimbabwe. “We receive stocks once every week, and we sell the creams discreetly because it is not allowed in principle. In town the cream is sold at night to evade the police, but here we sell from under the table because there is no night market,” says Marita.

But she is not afraid of the police. She only keeps the creams under the table because this is what is expected. “I am very safe, and as long as I play my cards well the police do not arrest me. In fact, they know me. They know I sell these creams, and I am fine as long as I do not sell them openly. On some days, I just give the police a few dollars’ tip and the deal is sealed.”

Survival of the fittest

The creams and tablets, most classified under the country’s Dangerous Drugs and Substances Act, are illegal because they contain harmful substances. They are not authorised by the Medicines Control Council of Zimbabwe, the body responsible for regulating medicines. They often contain highly-concentrated cocktails of compounds like hydroquinone and tretinoin, which if used for a long time can lead to skin cancer, permanent pigmentation of the skin, liver damage and mercury poisoning.

“Women will do anything to look beautiful,” says Marita. “Women are aware of the health risks of using such products. The creams are even addictive and for the unfortunate ones, trying to stop using them will cause skin rashes and unsightly skin pigmentation.”

Despite the questionable legality of selling these products, Marita is undeterred. After all, she makes a lot of money and is able to support herself as well as her family. “For us this illegal business has become a source of livelihood,” she says. “The sales are quick and rewarding too, there is double profit to every tube.”

It really is survival of the fittest on the streets of Zimbabwe.

Marita tells me how dark-skinned people suddenly become pale and light in complexion after using the creams.

Dark skinned people lighten up after a few days of continuous use, but you have to be very careful in using these creams. It is always advisable to use them sparingly, and the best method is to mix them with body lotion instead of applying them direct. Overuse of the creams leads to face-swelling, and some people have developed septic blisters that ooze blood and pus. Many have had to resort to expensive skin treatments after their skins reacted from the creams. But women still use the creams. A lot of them feel they have to be a certain kind of beautiful in order to attract men.”

Skin lighteners are only a tip of the iceberg of this illicit beauty trade. There’s another “body enhancement” aide on the market called Appetito. Coming tablet and gel form, Appetito and others like it are used for hip enlargement. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the effectiveness of Appetito isn’t predictable, some women’s bodies have been irreparably distorted, and others claim that it hasn’t worked for them at all.

Beauty is Political: “Do I look beautiful?”

“Do I look beautiful? What can I do to look like her? What do they think of my looks? How can I please my man?”

For too many women the world over, these questions are part of a daily routine. For women of colour, the concept of “beauty” is often imbued with racist standards of beauty that dominate Western media and culture. One merely has to open a glossy magazine or walk down the aisles of a supermarket in Harare and look at the faces you see on certain kinds of body lotion or shower cream—to realise that “beauty” and ideas of beauty are political.

These notions of beauty are context-specific. Famed Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o articulates poignantly the experience of being a black African woman, “I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned.”

The identities, minds and bodies of Black women of the African diaspora have historically been the subject of criticism, the property of the state, and mis-recognized in ways that perpetuated their subjugation and ensured their long-term physical, emotional and psychological damage. The same is true for other groups of women of colour from countries colonized by European nations. Skin lightening creams are still popular in many African and South Asian countries.” ~ Nia Hamm, Lupita Nyong’o and America’s Complicated Relationship with Beauty

In some parts of Zimbabwe, as in many parts of Africa, women are expected to have a certain body type. A woman with large rounded hips and bust is the epitome of true beauty. Weight gain is also seen as a sign of good health and prosperity—particularly attractive in a time where HIV and AIDS and poverty have defined the realities of an entire generation of Zimbabweans.

What does it mean to be “well”?

As feminists, we talk about how patriarchal society has all sorts of expectations and rules about women’s bodies: what we should do with them? What choices we’re allowed to make about them? What clothes we can put on them? How we should feel about them?

The pressure of conforming to ideals of beauty is something that can impact women on multiple levels—in our hearts and minds, and, as seen with Appetito and other chemical body “enhancements”, it can even impact at a molecular level. Marita, the black market (underground market where goods or services are traded illegally) woman who’s just trying to make a living on the streets of Zimbabwe, may never fully understand how she is playing into a social construct of women’s beauty and bodies that is part of a system far bigger than she is. A system that has personal, political and economic implications because the beauty industry is booming with the combined personal care and beauty markets of South Africa and Nigeria totalling more than $3 billion in 2013.

The question is how can we unsettle and deconstruct “beauty” and the values attached to it? How do we create a world where the full spectrum of what it means to be a “woman” is acceptable and deemed beautiful?

Picture Source: scancomark


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