Khoudia Diop’s moniker on Instagram is Melanin Goddess, and it suits her well. The 19-year-old model’s strikingly dark skin has caught the attention of booking agents and fashion fans around the world. Online, she’s gained a massive following thanks to her posts celebrating the beauty of dark skin as well as her condemnations of the practice of skin bleaching.
Today, Diop lives in New York City, where she has been studying business and working as a model ever since she was discovered by creative agency The Colored Girl about two years ago. But she grew up in Senegal, where many women routinely use skin-bleaching products to lighten their skin, despite the known health risks.
Depending on the product’s chemical composition, the dangers of skin bleaching can range from the superficial – such as scarring or the appearance of dark patches – to the life threatening, including kidney, liver and nerve damage.
After several decades of popularity, skin-whitening is facing a backlash, with movements and policies against the practice slowly gaining traction. Campaigns have sprung up to counter the messages of skin-whitening advertisements, notably in Senegal. And in the past few years, several countries have banned dangerous bleaching products, including South Africa, Ivory Coast, and, most recently, Ghana.
However, these bans haven’t stopped women from continuing to buy skin-whitening products illegally. Activists say they are unlikely to stop unless there is a significant shift in beauty standards. Diop talks to Women & Girls about how she hopes to help more women feel comfortable in their own skin.
Women & Girls: When you first decided you wanted to become a fashion model, how did people around you react to your dream? Did you face any difficulties?
Khoudia Diop: Some of my friends would laugh and say that there was no way I could become a model because I was “too dark.” But my family always encouraged me to pursue my dream. The only hardship I faced was not being confident enough. Then I started realizing that it was all about what I think about myself and my skin color. One day, I finally saw the beauty in it, and I started not caring about the negative comments because I always received more compliments and positivity, anyway.
Women & Girls: Why do you think that dark-skinned models are still underrepresented in the fashion world today – even in African countries like Senegal, where models tend to be lighter-skinned than the general population?
Diop: In my country and many others, the main beauty standard is to be light-skinned, which is a more European standard of beauty. There is a wrong-headed belief that the lighter-complexioned ladies are more beautiful and that men prefer them, and over time, women have internalized this false perception.
It has gotten to a point that dark-skinned girls feel ashamed. They become insecure about their skin color and want to be lighter, at any cost. I find that very sad. I think we need to stand out more and not be ashamed of being dark-skinned. There is beauty in all skin colors, all people. Period. One is no better or worse than the next.
Women & Girls: When you were younger, did you yourself ever feel pressured to use skin-bleaching products?
Diop: I was pressured by some of my cousins, and it made me feel insecure. I would be, like, What is wrong with my skin?! I remember staying in the shower for hours crying and trying to wash my dark skin off. But thankfully my older sister was there for me, and explained what would happen if I ever tried to change my skin color.
Skin bleaching is unhealthy – I have a lot of relatives who used bleaching creams and they got some serious skin damage. Not to mention that they never got back to their natural skin color. I also noticed that everybody around me who bleached their skin would look for the products with higher doses of the chemical hydroquinone, which they thought were the most effective. But studies of hydroquinone show it may have carcinogenic properties.
In African countries, most of the women who still use these creams today are those who don’t have any education and are doing it just because they want to fit into a certain standard of beauty. I think they need more education about beauty so they can learn that having dark skin is not a bad thing – it’s beautiful. I aim to change that negative perception.
Women & Girls: When a country bans a certain skin-bleaching ingredient or product, how big of an impact do you think it has?
Diop: I think it’s a great initiative, but a ban by itself won’t really make a big change. Skin bleaching is such a big market in Africa that these products will continue to be sold illicitly. So users need to understand the truth behind the banned product – these women are using something harmful without knowing the consequences, or even why they’re doing it. I think educating and trying to change the young ones’ mentality more about colorism would be a good start.
Women & Girls: What do you say to young girls who may feel pressured to use skin-whitening products?
Diop: They don’t need to impress others or be beautiful for anybody but themselves. I personally think that beauty starts when you appreciate yourself – the way you truly are. Not just caring about looking good in other people’s eyes.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.