Nollywood actress Beverly Naya and “Skin” director Etim Effiong / Image: Ernest Akhidenor

How Netflix’s “Skin” Documentary Exposes The Deep Folds of Colorism

Mild spoilers

There was no way to avoid the new documentary on Netflix that compellingly examines the damaging physical and mental effects of the epidemic of skin beaching, aptly titled Skin, produced and narrated by Nollywood actress, Beverly Naya, and directed by Daniel Etim Effiong.

Naya is British-Nigerian, and while the project also showcases the testimonies of other young Black women in the entertainment industry, including Diana Yekini, another British-Nigerian actress, Skin is really enfolded in Naya’s activated journey of self-discovery, which is set in the thriving metropolis of Lagos — my former hometown.

Growing up in the former capital city of Nigeria, after relocating from Kansas City at the age of eight, the hovering residue of British colonialism was present in the fabric of functionality.

Gaining independence on October 1st 1960 was merely a formality when you consider the permanent bondage etched into the relics of a violent invasion, staged by white invaders, who were masked as dutiful missionaries, wielding bibles as weaponry.

Since Nigeria is a former British colony, the territory was forced to discard its tribal deity in favor of the English lifestyle, which permeates through the purposely installed system that British soldiers and colonial administrators intended to utilize after their celebrated departure.

The goal was to reinforce the agreement with rulers from the Northern region, that stipulated the convenience of permanent accessibility to key areas of the most populous country in Africa, for the unlawful poaching of our valuable resources.

While attending the all-girls boarding school, Queens College, where I followed the traditions of a tightly regimented schedule, that closely resembled the army barracks just miles away from campus, it was clear that we were adhering to the standards of British white women, who left blueprints for our education.

There were also the notable British names of white men, who served as governors of assigned Protectorates or overseers of smaller towns and villages, housing invaluable artifacts that were looted after native rulers were either destabilized or killed — honorably plastered on avenues, prominent buildings, and other noteworthy structures across cities.

The point is that the British influence is more than just the physical items that represent our massacred history, it also flows into the tragic attributes that propel self-hate, dictating why our richly-defined Blackness should be regarded as a handicap that must be rectified to endorse our viability.

I was lucky to have a loving and devoted mother, who was adamant about reminding her only daughter that my darker skin complexion was never hindrance. Her constant reassurance helped to prevent the butchering of my self-esteem at an impressionable age.

But she couldn’t protect me from the exposure to boarding school, where the lighter-skinned and biracial girls were treated like royalty, and naturally won every beauty contest on social night based on their proximity to whiteness.

I distinctively remember how a classmate who was a slightly lighter than me, was declared prettier, by those who noted how much we looked alike, except for the fact that she had an edge due to her more acceptable skin hue.

It was also a common sight to see piles of skin bleaching products in the open marketplace, with a range of options featuring the more expensive European imports, and the cheaper knock offs that contained the potency that produces faster results at the risk of mutilated skin cells.

The women manning their cosmetic stations exhibited the typical signs of longterm use of magic potions, that left them with the contrast of darker knuckles, elbows, ears, and other parts of the body that resisted skin lightening treatments that left them with a rugged yellowish tint everywhere else.

Beverly Naya’s in depth exploration in Skin takes her into the heart of the city I grew up in, with the familiar winding maze of the marketplace, that still showcases stockpiles of bleaching creams, as damning evidence of how the raging global epidemic that has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, despite dire warnings from the World Health Organization is still the disease without a cure.

For the 31-year-old British-born Nigerian, her personal quest to “inspire young people to love themselves” was inspired by her own self-esteem issues, growing up in the United Kingdom where she tearfully recalls how she was relentlessly bullied for having a darker skin tone.

That childhood experience forced her to work on her self-confidence as a young Black woman in her twenties, which led to the formation of an anti-bullying campaign

The burgeoning documentarian and Nollywood staple extended the lens to counterparts like fellow actress Diana Yekini, who provides a heartbreaking testimony of how she was once shamed for her dark skin by a lighting technician on a movie set in Nigeria in 2017.

Yekini who happens to bear a slight resemblance to Oscar-nominee and Harriet star, Cynthia Erivo, describes how she was told to strongly consider bleaching her skin if she wanted to keep working in entertainment because of the appeal of lighter skin, and how actresses who fit the requirements are more hirable.

For her part, Yekini’s rude awakening only reiterated what she already knew about the odds stacked against her.

“The issue is that regardless of how amazing you were, you could kill it, you could be fabulous, you could be what they want secretly, but if you’re not fair, that’s it.”

Viewers are also introduced to a handful of subscribers to skin bleaching like Nigerian influencer, Idris Okuneye, who goes by the brand name Bobrisky, and details the arduous journey that was undertaken to transform the black skin that represents ugliness and destitution into the much lighter version of heralded success.

As with most background stories pertaining to the why and how, Bobrisky explains the crippling feelings of unworthiness that ignited the desire to undergo the painstaking process to not only erase the stain of darkness, but also build the social media presence that funds the newfound fame and fortune stemming from a new and improved persona.

Ironically the Nigerian influencer admits why the process of skin bleaching isn’t worth the extreme effort it takes for high maintenance and why reversing to original skin color would be ideal, even it never happens.

We are introduced to budding beauty entrepreneur Leslie Okoye, who makes the case for why the high-end skin care products that she uses and sells, don’t fall into the category of beaching, per se.

The packaging follows the template assigned to European brand names that normalize the effects of lightening agents with seductive descriptions like “toners,” “brighten” and even the controversial “whiten.

Retailers like Okoye, are delusional, which is apparent when we watch her attempt to convince Beverly Naya that she isn’t in the business of providing skin scarring services to obsessed customers, who are consumed with the regimen of maintaining their lighter hues.

Okoye claims in the documentary that her skin creams are superior to the ones commonly found in the marketplace because they are effective in evening out skin tones, as opposed to stripping the protectants and weakening durability, leading to long-term health issues.

The beauty guru also explains the necessity of using “whiten” and “brighten” as a way to lure customers who are accustomed to buying products that do exactly that, even though Okoye insists that her supply is the safer route to the same destination.

The film showcases additional opinions from a dermatologist, who confirms how the damning legacy of white supremacy spearheaded the messaging that forces a large population of Nigerian women to spend a lifetime scrubbing off dark stains with the aid of mercury, a deadly whitening agent found in most bleaching creams that has the capacity to destroy organs.

The more endearing portions of Naya’s documentary happens when she returns to her village after extended time away, and reunites with her beloved grandmother with her own mother in tow. It’s an affecting demonstration that restores the nostalgia for the traditions that defined my youth before I left my homeland.

It’s touching to witness the generation of three Nigerian women, seated in the decades-old home that hosted the evolution of familial bonds that still hold the beauty and reverence that sustains the present and reaffirms the future.

It’s no wonder where Beverly Naya’s prized attributes come from when you consider the lovely stoicism of her mother’s mother, and the remarkable resilience of the woman who birthed her, and has become the noted heroine in her daughter’s life.

Emotions overwhelm Beverly Naya, as she admits that she’s finally ready to absorb the wisdom and answers to the questions that only the women she loves the most can lovingly provide.

In the end, Skin is a fitting tribute to what it means to be a Black woman without the dilution of whiteness or exotic blood. We get to the heart of the matter with all the obstacles that are arranged by the supremacy of whiteness, to demean the value of Blackness at the expense of victims who are trapped in the cell of self-loathing.

The reviews of Naya’s most prolific project to date have been positive and encouraging, as young women around the world, who live in societies that adhere to the oppressiveness of colorism, validate the relatability with promises to keep fighting the good fight.

“I am so honored by the response to my documentary and I am happy that many women are learning to love their skin through it.”

The global health quandary, borne from the lucrative skin bleaching industry is the ongoing crisis that shows no signs of slowing down, as buyers and sellers are loyal to the exchange program, that turns velvety Black skin to the lightened rubbery results, that can’t hide the deep folds of colorism — the undefeated enemy of Black power.

Just like any other chronic illness, the practice of skin bleaching will require a miracle cure.

Until then, it’s at least consoling that young, influential Black women like Naya are committed to spreading knowledge, far and wide about the topic of skin, and the darkness of whiteness, that can’t continue to threaten the majestic armor of Blackness for much longer.


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