From an early age, Amira Adawe got the message that she was less than perfect.
“People would comment about my skin color,” Adawe said. “When I was as young as seven years old, people would say things like, ‘She’s dark. She’d be more beautiful if she were a little bit lighter.’”
These comments stung, but Adawe said they were deflected by her mother, a strong-willed, “protective” woman who carefully guarded her daughter’s self-esteem: “She’d always respond back to those kind of comments by saying, ‘Do not say that about my daughter. She is beautiful.’”
Thanks to the love and support of her mother, Adawe, who was born in Somalia and came to the United States with her family when she was 19 years old, said she always felt confident that true beauty was more than skin color. But not all of the women she grew up around felt the same way.
Even in the US, Somali women, both young and old, still felt free to comment on the shade of each other’s skin, Adawe discovered. And many, seeing lighter skin tones as the beauty standard, would regularly use skin-lightening creams to try to make their own skin look lighter.
“I was surprised to see that that attitude didn’t change when I migrated to the United States,” she said. “I saw many people around me use skin-lighting products. All the ethnic stores I went to here sold them.”
Adawe, who holds a master’s degree in public health, knew that skin-lightening creams were not just bad for users’ self-esteem: Because many contain high levels of dangerous chemicals like mercury, steroids and hydroquinone, these products can cause permanent damage and injury to the women who use them and, indirectly, to their families.
Often used in skin lightening products, mercury is particularly dangerous ingredient that has been known to cause skin rashes, discoloration, scars, kidney damage and even psychiatric symptoms like anxiety, depression and psychosis.
“I asked the Minnesota Department of Health to test all 27 products,” she said. The testing revealed dangerously high levels of mercury in 11 out of the 27 products that were readily available in local shops: “We are talking about 4.8 to 33,000 parts per million.”
After studying Adawe’s research, “The Minnesota Department of Health released a warning. They had never seen the levels of mercury that humans were applying to their skin,” Adawe said. Shop owners were ordered to stop selling the products (the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also raided the stores), but many owners ultimately ignored the warnings and kept stocking them the products.
There was little official pushback to this attitude, Adawe said: “The agency wasn’t proactive about going into stores and enforcing the regulations,”
In the years since, Adawe has expanded her testing.
“We have now tested more than 500 products,” she said. “The mercury level in these products are as high as 150,000 parts per million.” This is shockingly high when compared with the US government’s official threshold for safe mercury levels in skin-care products, Adawe added: “The FDA threshold for mercury is just 1 part per million.”
When pregnant or breastfeeding women use skin- lightening creams, the toxic chemicals can be passed on to their children, Adawe explained. “Many women say they continue to use these products at that time because hormonal changes can temporarily change their skin color. When these products are used at this time, there is a high risk for exposure to not only the women but their unborn babies and their living children as well.”
Nonprofit aims to educate
Determined to make sure that more women know about the dangers of skin-lightening creams, Adawe launched a campaign designed to educate the public about the health risks of using these products.
“I started with the Somali community because that was the culture I was familiar with,” she said. “The women I talked to told me what products they were using, how often they used them. I didn’t like to hear that so many women in my community were putting their health in danger to meet a false beauty standard.”
By 2017, Adawe, who was then working as manager of Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet, decided she needed to focus her efforts on educating the public about the dangers of skin-lightening creams. She established a nonprofit called The Beautywell Project, dedicated to ending skin-lightening practices and ending chemical exposures through education, research, policy and system changes. By 2019 she’d left her job at the governor’s office and became the organization’s full-time executive director.
“The work that we do is at the intersection between environmental justice and public health and empowering communities,” Adawe said about her nonprofit. “Largely we’re an advocacy organization.”
Last year, Adawe and her supporters successfully advocated for legislative funding.
“Ultimately the Minnesota State Legislature directed $200,000 to a two-year pilot program designed to raise public awareness about the issue,” she said.
Last year also saw another significant victory for Adawe and Beautywell. Concerned that 15 skin-lightening creams containing dangerous levels of toxic chemicals were readily available on Amazon, she partnered with the Sierra Club to gather 25,000 signatures and comments from individuals around the country.
In November 2019, Adawe brought the petition to Amazon’s offices in Shakopee, accompanied by a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio. This strategy worked. “Amazon removed the products from their website,” Adawe said.
This year, Adawe was named a Bush Fellow. She said she will be using her 24-month, $100,000 fellowship to expand her research on skin-lightening products and the international companies that manufacture them.
“I am doing research on how cosmetic companies that manufacture skin-lightening creams market to communities of color,” she said. As part of her Bush research, she recently traveled to Dubai. “It is the center of skin-lightening cream dealers. It was a fascinating journey. I learned a lot about how these dealers target these countries and these communities”
Exposing colorism’s deep roots
The practice of skin lightening has its roots in colorism, Adawe explained. “Colorism is basically discrimination against skin color within a group and outside a group.”
In countries where the populace generally has darker skin that were colonized by light-skinned European Americans, lighter skin is usually associated with power and privilege, Adawe explained. This means that darker skin is seen as a disadvantage, and that individuals with darker skin are often discriminated against. Because of this discrimination, many people go to great lengths to lighten their skin.
The damaging message of colorism extends to the United States, Adawe added. When people from formerly colonized nations like Somalia migrate to a new country, they often bring their old beliefs and practices like colorism along with them.
“While the colonizers are not in this country,” Adawe said, “they still left a legacy of white supremacy that says that if you are white you’re good.”
Adawe said that in the past she believed that colorism was a practice limited to people of African descent. But as she began her work with Beautywell, she quickly discovered that dark-skinned people from other countries also use dangerous products to lighten their skin.
“I learned that the use of skin-lightening creams is not limited to Somali communities. It is the Latinx community, the Hmong community, and other Asian communities, as well.”
Through advocacy and activism, Adawe said that Beautywell works to upend colorism. One powerful way to do that is to educate young people about the dangers of skin lightening — and about colorism’s long and damaging history.
Her organization works to reach young women through the Young Women’s Wellness and Leadership Initiative (YWWLI), a support and advocacy group designed to help Somali girls break down traditions and beliefs based in colorism.
Fathi Ahmed is YWWLI program manager. With an undergraduate degree in public health, she leads weekly sessions with a group of teen Somali girls. The program’s curriculum is designed to debunk colorism’s myths and support participants’ self-esteem.
“The sessions are focused around leadership, health and wellness,” Ahmed said. “We talk about colorism and self-esteem and how all of that is connected to our mental and physical health. We talk about why people use skin-lighting creams and the importance of loving our black skin.”
Group members also meet with African women in leadership roles. “We want them to meet leaders that look like them,” Ahmed said.
The group, which has so far graduated two cohorts, creates a comprehensive final project that showcases what they have learned.
The first cohort, Ahmed said, “did a photo project called Black in Color, Each participant had a photo taken of themselves and they chose a quote and a color to wear in the photo. They talked about why they love their black skin.” The second cohort completed an “educational, uplifting” video about colorism.
The young women in Ahmed’s groups are, she said, “all familiar with skin-lightening creams. They see their aunties using them when they are getting ready for a wedding. They say, ‘We see it in our house.’ Or, ‘My mom uses it.’ It was a normal thing to believe that part of being beautiful is having lighter skin, straighter hair and Eurocentric features.”
Adawe said she hopes that through programs like YWWLI, combined with advocacy work in the greater community, Beautywell will be able to change the way people view skin color and end the risky methods they take to change the color of their skin.
She knows that this change won’t happen in an instant, that these beliefs developed over generations, but she said has seen progress and she’s committed to this work for the long haul.
“Beauty standards get embedded in the culture,” Adawe said. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t change our attitude about what makes a person beautiful.”