Bimbo Onafowokan, 27, has just changed into a towel at a corner in a small shop. Seated next to her is Bello, the shop owner, readying a mixture from a bottle to apply on her skin. There’s a large mirror by the wall for Bimbo to peer in occasionally and monitor how detailed Bello is in helping her bleach her skin with the concoction.
Besides the mirror, three carefully arranged plastic chairs, a towel rack and a shelf filled with skin bleaching concoctions of different sizes, Bello’s shop is pretty much empty. It is tucked deep in the very heart of Lagos State, Ikeja. ‘Under bridge’, as it’s commonly called is home to self-proclaimed beauticians who work from the edges of the busy bridge. These ‘hustlers’ offer all sorts of beauty products to men and women who readily troop into their makeshift stores to “look beautiful”.
“I have been doing this thing [skin bleaching] for three years now and my skin is fairer. It makes me feel like a beautiful woman. You know if you’re dark skinned the men don’t come to you” Bimbo said in a voice tinged with excitement. She explained that she uses part of her income selling bread on the streets to purchase the skin whitening mixture from Bello. “I come here every two months to buy it from Bello. Since I started using it, the men on the streets come to me to buy bread because they find me more attractive than the other bread sellers” she told me.
Use of creams, mixtures and physical treatments to whiten the skin is not an uncommon practice in Nigeria. A 2011 World health organisation report found that 77% of women in the Nigeria use skin lightening products, the biggest percentage in the world. The reasons according to the report were wide-ranging but most people say they bleach their skin because they want “white skin”. According to a 2017 essay by Metro UK, 70% of Nigerian women admit to using products that lighten their skin. The essay pointed out that women are not the only ones obsessed with bleaching their skins, men enjoy having “white skin” as well.
David Oluwatobi, 32, who asked that his real name not be used, has a shop seven minutes away from Bello’s. He deals in lip colouration, popularly tagged as ‘Pink lips’. The pink lips procedure is accomplished in three ways. The first is by using a machine or a blade to scrape off part of the outer layer of the bottom lip and then apply an ointment or balm that changes the colour of the lip to something close to pink. “I have been doing pink lips for seven years now, everybody in this under bridge knows my face” David bragged.
Speaking on the second lip colouration process, which is also a form of Skin bleaching, David noted that many people prefer it because the process is painless. “People see the machine and get scared, they prefer buying the pink lip balm and using it. But the lip balm process takes longer to be effective, you have to use it many times before you get pink lips” he said. “But you see that machine, once I remove part of the outer lip and add my mixture, the lip swells for two days and by the time it comes down, everything is pink and fine” he said.
The third lip colouration method involves tattooing the colour pink permanently on the lower lip. When asked about the number of people that patronize him, David commented that many people preferred to come to his shop. “In a week I make like twenty-five thousand naira. Many people come here because they know that I give them different options. Any method of getting pink lips, they choose from” he explained to me.
In search of persons interested in enlarging their penis, Mutiu Olalere, 25, hovers outside David’s makeshift store sometimes. Mutiu, who has been dealing in penis enlargement for three years, led me to his store at the other side of the bridge where the buses going to the Island are parked. “This business is not for everybody, only those that know me well can spot this place,” he said. The enlargement process involves a method of stretching the penis with a machine shaped like a pump. “I have a small generator because my machine will not work without electricity. There is a way it draws blood to the penis and makes it swell” he explained.
Part of what drives men to visit people like Mutiu for this method of body enhancement is the belief that men with larger penises perform better in bed. “African women like it to be big, if your penis is small you will not perform well in bed. Many men like want to satisfy their women so they come to me for help” he said. “Just last week, someone came here to give me positive feedback. It works well,” he added.
In many parts of the country, body enhancement offerings offered by the beauty industry are popular. Lighter skinned women, for instance, are considered more beautiful and are believed to find marriage easier than dark skinned women. For lip colouration, many men partake in it because they believe it makes them more attractive to their partners. Penis enlargement, on the other hand, follows a notion that a large penis means better sex. “I have had women commend me in bed since I got my penis enlarged” Joseph, one of Mutiu’s customers’ told me.
The body improvement process with all its buzz comes with hazardous health consequences. Penis enlargement, for example, can lead to skin peeling, extreme soreness and pain on the genital organ. Abbas Amza, a pharmacist in Nigeria’s public health sector says the mechanical device used for enlargement could result in deformation of the penis and damage to the penile blood vessels.
For skin bleaching, the application of the whitening agents invites skin infections like scabies, eczema, and acne. Samira Owoyale, a medical practitioner, says skin-bleaching agents can damage the liver and kidney as they contain components like Glutathione. “These bleaching creams despite their acceptance are threatening. They lessen the pigment growth of the skin. Normally, the pigments absorb ultraviolet radiation of UV rays. Without the protection of these pigments, skin cancer can occur” she noted.
Lip colouration is just as hazardous as skin bleaching. The dangers associated with passing equipment to another customer without proper sterilization include the spread of HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, lip infection and inflammation. Abbas Amza, says the pink lips balm sometimes contain unhealthy components like Glucocorticoids, which reduce the immunity of the body. “Those creams when used over an extended period of time can lead to depressed immunity for the entire body” he explained.
“The mixture also reduces the strength of the skin membrane and makes it liable to tearing. In the event of surgery, for example, there will be difficulty in suturing the skin tissue back,” he added.
Despite the hazardous health effects around these beauty routines, they are here to stay. The industry is growing and many people are buying into the idea of looking good through bigger genitals and lighter skin. “Do you know the opportunities that come with looking fairer? Nobody is going to drop that for anything” says Chinenye Onwusoro, a skin bleaching shop owner.