Eva Anambo is a Sociology student at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. We sent her undercover to see how “beauty” vendors in one of Nairobi’s busiest markets – River Road – view ideal beauty and what they offer to those whom they feel fall short of their prescribed “beauty Nirvana”. Here is her experience.
I have this dark complexion and petite figure, placing me at a UK size eight with a height below five feet. I therefore stand out in a very non-conventional way! So it was that I took a trip down the busy River Road market stalls, to get some beauty hints, tips and see what can be done for a young African woman like me.
River Road is pretty cool most of the time as it has lots of clothes, accessories and beautiful things to buy! But I have gathered from the local NAW correspondent that there is more to River Road than pretty accessories and clothes! My mission is to find out what else lurks behind those stall counters. There are always these stories that most women go there to buy special products that make them more beautiful. I am more than ready to find out.
On this day, being petite and dark skinned proves to be a blessing to me, as someone in search of a ‘change’ or a makeover. I am perfect for the mission at hand.
I begin my hunt by talking to some of the ladies who stock hair and beauty products. I do so mainly in a whisper. I ask them for what my type would need for beauty. One of them directs me to Mama Njeri, a few stalls away.
Mama Njeri, although pregnant, is full of energy. She ushers me into a small booth hidden from the street and prying eyes! I feel relaxed and excited at the same time as she ushers me in. With my heart beating, I make known my request. I quickly ask (still in a whisper) for some skin lightening cream. After a quick glance at me, Mama Njeri begins to give me an intriguing insight into this ‘brighter’ world of beauty through skin lightening!
Because I had whispered to her that I wanted to move from being this very dark young woman to someone very light, she quickly tells me that as a beginner, I would need to go for a strong cream, because my request was very was radical. Mama Njeri explains that it is up to a client to decide how to move across the shades: from skin brightening (mild) to skin lightening (stronger) to skin bleaching. The latter would see me totally light skinned as I had requested. Mama Njeri then shows me a 250 gram size of Princess Claire that she sells at the equivalent of £2 British. And being officially a prospective client, she is very keen on proffering advice.
She is indeed skilled in persuasion and even gives the example of someone whom she says has now been transformed into a light skinned beauty. Mama Njeri emphatically adds to convince me: “Vera has now changed! She looks good.” She goes further and shares with me that she uses the products herself and swears by how effective and good they are. She insists and lectures that skin lightening is part of any black woman’s life. “Even our grandmothers and great grandmothers did this to make themselves beautiful,” she tells me.
As I continue to dilly-dally with my purchase of the “beauty creams”, she warns me that if I did not purchase now, the price would be six times more the next time I come, because demand is high and increasing. I smile at her and tell her I will come back later. She has that look of conviction that I will return to purchase the creams – like she thinks there is no doubt I need them. We part on a cheerful note.
However before I leave, I whisper another demand in her ear. “Do you have a hip booster?”, I ask, running my hands over my slender lower-body frame. She shakes her head, rather knowingly, and with a sly smile suggests: “Maybe next time I will have those, too.” I leave, promising to return within the hour.
I then walk on further down into River Road to a good friend of mine called Anne. Anne stocks beauty and hair products. I find her stall and ask her about getting some hip boosters. To my surprise, it turns out she actually stocks them. Rumour has it that buying these illegal “hip boosters” is increasingly becoming rampant in many parts of downtown markets in Nairobi and other parts of the country. Like many of her peers, Anne hides the “hip boosting wares” from her other beauty products, and will only reveal she has them if a client asks.
Anne reaches out from under her counter and hands me these capsules called C4. I have heard growing rumours about their existence, and thought it was untrue. True to form, I was holding one in my hands as Anne tried to convince me that they have amazing results. I try to play ball and grumble to her how I am so tired of my size 36 hips.
Anne tells me one C4 tablet will cost just Kshs 6,000 for one dose (£50 British) but promises that within just three days, I will note the change in my body shape! My tiny hips are being promised to grow wider within 72 hours! How does it work, I ask? When Anne explains to me how this C4 tablet works wonders simply by inserting it anally, I totally freak out! But I am on a mission, so I try not to show it!
I ask Ann where the products come from and she claims they come from the USA but offers no further details on manufacturers, importing or the ingredients. There is also no packaging. Shouldn’t this lack of details on a drug scare anyone off? It clearly does not as while I was standing there, listening to an excited Anne rave on about how the drug is bringing her a lot of customers, a middle-aged lady with an orange hue shade on her skin comes in to collect various products including several C4 tablets. She seems to be a wholesale trader.
I am in a sort of daze as I realise that this industry is for real! The Kenyan television reports I saw were not rumors! I tell Anne I will think about purchasing and walk off in awe. This is real!
But I am determined to find out more about this industry. I am on a NAW mission after all.
I soon meet Risper, who instantly makes a comment on how dull my skin is! She is very talkative and promises to restore my darkened skin to how it was when I was a baby. I wonder about this promise as I am only a young lady in my early twenties! What would she tell an older woman then? She is making me feel somewhat uncomfortable in my own skin. Risper does not allow me to get a word in but I manage to ask for a hip and buttock booster.
She quickly urges me to go for the skin lightening as well as hip and buttocks booster! Risper also has the C4 tablets, with hers retailing at around 100 US dollars a tablet. She then shows me the miraculous Dr James tablets that enhance buttock and hip measurements.
Risper’s skin lightening creams, she says, work only when vigorously massaged into the body evenly! She is big on massaging and recommends massaging the skin lightening creams all over the skin for a uniform lightening experience. She again convinces me to lighten my skin as it would greatly improve my looks.
Since we are now chatting heartily, I ask her if the reports on TV were true about side effects of hip and buttocks boosters. She says that media people just exaggerate and it is not true! She has many happy and satisfied customers.
What I notice about bubbly Risper, Mama Njeri and Anne were their lack of understanding of the beauty products they stock, their ingredients and how they work.
As I walked back to campus on that day, I was plagued by various thoughts about the River Road industry.
As a dark-skinned young woman, I have been judged and found wanting by these traders, who all wanted to change my skin tone. They all seemed to have a unified view that a light skinned woman is the epitome of beauty!
I could not help but think of the dangers that these beauty products could bring upon a woman’s health!
As a Sociology student, it reminded me of some of my studies. How are we socialised as women about beauty and what messages have we received that lead us to such risky paths? When did we women start to buy beauty products based upon discontent with ourselves and a desire to look like women with whom we share no heritage?
I realised that the only winners were the charming but unscrupulous traders in River Road who made a profit out of these poisons. Sort of like the dealer who never does the drugs yet turns many into junkies!
According to these unscrupulous, uninformed traders, my friends are lying to me and a dark skinned, petite young woman like me, is not supposed to like anything I see in the mirror !
But guess what, after my undercover beauty errand, I like what I see in the mirror even more.