Abstract (Psychosocial factors of voluntary skin depigmentation among women in Lomé)

Kaka Kalina§

Abstract: The present study aims to identify the psychosocial factors of voluntary skin depigmentation among women who practice it. It was carried out in the Autonomous District of Greater Lomé on 320 women, aged between 21 and 60, who had been voluntarily depigmenting their skin for at least 6 months. An elaborate questionnaire and the Rosenberg self-esteem scale were used to collect the data. The main results show that the psychosocial factors underlying the practice of voluntary skin depigmentation are dominated by the desire to feel beautiful and attractive, the desire to resemble friends or models, spousal demand and ridicule from those around them. In addition, the majority of women have negative self-esteem. 

Key words: Psychosocial factors, Depigmentation, Body image, Self-esteem, Women.  

Abstract The present study aims to identify the psychosocial factors associated with volontary skin lightening practices. It was carried out in the district of Grand Lomé on 320 women, aged 21 to 60, who have been voluntarily lightening their skin for at least 6 months. A questionnaire and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale were used to collect the data. The results show that the main psychosocial factors are the desire to feel beautiful and attractive, the desire to look like friends or models, the spouse's demand and mockery from those around them. In addition, most of the women have negative self-esteem.

Keywords: Psychosocial Factors, Skin Lightening, Body Image, Self-Esteem, Woman.


Voluntary depigmentation of the skin "refers to a practice whereby a person, on his or her own initiative, works to reduce or eliminate the physiological pigmentation of his or her skin" (Petit 19). Cosmetic depigmentation consists in reducing skin pigmentation through the voluntary use of cosmetics or drugs containing active substances that have the property of reducing melanin production (Morand et al. 630). The cosmetic use of depigmenting products is either topical or injectable. The main depigmenting products are dermocorticoids, hydroquinone, mercury salts and glutathione.

Voluntary depigmentation is a universal practice, mainly practiced by women, with prevalence rates in sub-Saharan Africa ranging from 32% to 74% (Ly 3). Initially considered taboo, today it is a normal and valued practice, so much so that depigmented women are well regarded in society (Kouotou 4).

Historically, skin depigmentation is a practice that dates back to antiquity. During this period, women from parts of Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia used lightening products (Ly et al. 6). Paradoxically, at that time in Egypt, black skin symbolized beauty, and the representation of black people was not based on ridicule or ugliness. This trend was reversed when Europe and Africa came into contact. Smeralda-Amon considers that there existed a hierarchy of "races" and cultures in which, at the bottom of the ladder, was the Black Man (89).

Originally, in the 1950s, hydroquinone's lightening potential was discovered by chance on black-skinned workers in rubber and textile factories in the USA, with depigmentation of exposed areas. In 1955, hydroquinone depigmenting cosmetics were first produced in the USA. Thus, depigmentation began to develop in the 1960s and 1970s (Kouotou 4).

As we can see, voluntary depigmentation is not specific to Africa. It is found on virtually every continent, with varying degrees of frequency. However, the highest prevalences are found in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (Ly 4). The overall prevalence of this practice in over thirty countries was 24.5%, ranging from 0% in Turkey to 83.8% in Thailand (Peltzer 280). Although little scientific data is available on the start of this practice in Africa, it is thought to have begun in 1951, in South Africa (Dlova et al. 3). In other French- and English-speaking countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the use of depigmenting products dates back to the 1970s (Ly 10). In sub-Saharan Africa, prevalences vary from 25% to 92%, depending on the country and the methodology used(Ly 900); they range from 25% to 77.3% (Teclessou et al. 3). In Benin, a country bordering Togo, the prevalence of depigmentation is 78.32% (Nguenmegne Ngouamadji, quoted by Glèlè-Ahanhanzo et al. 2) and 79.22% (Glèlè-Ahanhanzo et al. 1).

Despite the high level of knowledge about the harmful consequences of voluntary depigmentation for the people who practise it, it is clear that the practice continues. The results of a meta-analysis indicate that the practice of skin whitening is a serious global public health problem(Sagoe et al., cited by Nyiragasigwa 16). In their study, Kourouma et al. report that 67.5% of participants were aware of the skin complications associated with this practice, and cited two. They also found that 76.7% of them regretted the practice because of the appearance of skin diseases, which altered appearance and in fact constituted an effect contrary to the initial aim (4).

Looking specifically at adolescent girls, the results of the study by Mouliom and Wamba indicate that girls have mixed knowledge of the health consequences of voluntary skin depigmentation. They do, however, have a good knowledge of prevention strategies (266, 267).

Among the negative consequences of voluntary depigmentation are pigmentation disorders (77.6%), risk of skin cancer (68.1%) and large, unsightly stretch marks (22.2%) (Nyiragasigwa 51-54).

Faced with this situation, the question arises as to the factors behind the practice of voluntary skin depigmentation. The main motivations are the need to seduce, the desire to be beautiful, the desire to please, the desire to even out skin tone, mimicry, weddings, social ascent and success, the outward sign of well-being, magazines, cinema and aggressive advertising that extols a beauty stereotype (Kouotou 5). These motivations are diverse, and are dominated by the search for fair skin as a beauty canon. Fair skin and relaxed hair are the Western beauty model to be resolutely followed, as the traditional African model is not valued. What's more, users of these products are exposed to advertising pressure from the traditional media (radio, TV, billboards, newspapers) or local media (social entourage, peer pressure) (Teclessou et al. 3).

Other studies point in the same direction. According to Glèlè-Ahanhanzo et al., the motivations were the search for beauty (60.06%), self-esteem (34.06%) and the search for spouses or partners (5.88%) (3, 4). Kourouma et al. reveal that 80% of female practitioners were convinced that light-skinned women were more attractive and beautiful than dark-skinned women. Similarly, 50% said that the aim of their practice was to "clarify their complexion and remove spots to look more beautiful". What's more, 37.5% acknowledged that a close friend had encouraged them to do so, and only 5% of women claimed to have initiated the practice at the request of their partner. What's more, 60% of women were convinced of the efficacy of depigmenting products in achieving their goal before starting the practice (2, 3).

In the same vein, Kouadio et al. have shown that tattooing, skin depigmentation, enlargement of body parts (breasts and buttocks) and self-image in women traders are linked. They note that these three types of voluntary body modification practised on a permanent basis can be explained by a poor self-image. Firstly, shopkeepers with a poor self-image engage in more permanent depigmentation than those with a good self-image (7-9). Secondly, there is a relationship between poor self-image and permanent tattooing among shopkeepers. Finally, women with a poor self-image had more recourse to breast and buttock augmentation than those with a good self-image (Koudio et al. 9).

An analysis of the main reasons why women engage in voluntary skin depigmentation clearly shows that most of them revolve around modifying appearance, body image and self-image. This raises the question of how satisfied these women are.  

In their study, Guehi and Sawadogo report general body dissatisfaction and overall negative self-perception among women who practice voluntary depigmentation. Body dissatisfaction and negative self-esteem reach high proportions in women over 20 years of age and those with more than five years of depigmentation practice, in contrast to other women, who score high. The results of this study clearly show the pejorative impact of voluntary depigmentation in women aged over 20 and in those with prolonged depigmentation practice, marked by body image dissatisfaction and negative self-esteem. However, it is debatable whether body image dissatisfaction and negative self-esteem are the causes or consequences of voluntary depigmentation (6, 7).

Authors such as Emeriau (113; 98) and Kourouma et al. report that African women depigment their skin because of self-denial and rejection of their bodies (3). They also do it to get rid of what makes them feel ashamed, to the point where the loss of self-esteem leads them to self-hatred(Kouassi 100). But Guehi and Sawadogo (7) and Ly (5; 8) do not fully share this view, arguing that women who voluntarily depigment their skin are rather pursuing a body ideal dictated by the socio-cultural context and materialized by a skin with a uniform, radiant complexion. These women depigment their skin to fit into this context and improve their body perception and feelings about themselves, including a desire for superiority, self-esteem and self-assertion.

In Togo, the study carried out by Teclessou et al. (2018) gave no precise indication of the prevalence of the practice of depigmentation. Instead, it looked at its prevalence in Africa on the basis of journal of the literature. However, according to Pitche et al. voluntary cosmetic depigmentation is common among women in Lomé, with a prevalence of 58.9% (709). Although the results of this study may not reflect current reality, they do give an indication of the practice of depigmentation in Togo today.

Ultimately, studies carried out on voluntary skin depigmentation have highlighted various factors in women who practice it, as well as the harmful consequences. However, few studies in Togo have used appropriate instruments to specifically assess self-esteem, which is one of the important psychosocial factors likely to facilitate psychological understanding of the practice of voluntary depigmentation among women. The present study aims to identify the psychosocial factors of voluntary skin depigmentation, highlighting their self-esteem. The following research questions will help to define the scope of this study. What are the reasons why women practice voluntary skin depigmentation? What is the self-esteem of these women? 

1-Participantsand methods

The study was carried out in the dermatology department of the CHU Campus de Lomé, the Gbossimé national dermatology center, hairdressing and braiding salons, stores and boutiques selling beauty products, located in the Autonomous District of Greater Lomé.

It focused on women who voluntarily use cosmetic products for skin depigmentation purposes, aged between 21 and 60 and living in the Autonomous District of Greater Lomé. This district includes the communes of the Golfe and Agoé-Nyivé prefectures.

 Convenience or all-comers sampling, based on voluntary participation in the study, was used. The sample consisted of 320 women, including 20 patients seen in consultation for dermatological conditions. These women had been using skin depigmenting products for at least six months. They all signed an informed consent form to participate in the study.

Data were collected using an elaborate questionnaire on socio-demographic characteristics and reasons, as well as the self-esteem scale.

The self-esteem scale used was developed by Morris Rosenberg to measure the overall level of self-esteem. It consists of ten (10) items with responses ranging from one to four, corresponding to the options "strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, somewhat agree and strongly agree". This self-esteem scale is a cross-cultural validation of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale published in 1965 to assess self-acceptance, tolerance and personal satisfaction. It is used here to assess women's self-esteem on the basis of their scores: very low self-esteem, low self-esteem, average self-esteem, very high self-esteem.

Data collection took place from May to June 2021. During the first phase, a questionnaire identifying women who had been depigmenting their skin for at least 6 months was administered. The 320 participants were then selected. The data collected were subjected to statistical analysis using SPSS.

2. Results

All the results presented in the tables are based on the analysis of field data collected from women between May and June 2021.

2.1. Duration of the practice of voluntary skin depigmentation

Table 1: Distribution of women according to the length of time they have practised voluntary depigmentation

Duration (in years)WorkforcePercentage (%)
Less than one year14745,9
Over 5 years288,75

The table shows that 45.9% of women have been voluntarily depigmenting their skin for less than a year (between 6 months and 1 year). On the other hand, those who have been depigmenting for between one and 5 years represent 45.17%.

2.2 Socio-demographic characteristics 

Table 2: Age distribution of participants

Age rangesWorkforcePercentage

            Mean = 31.83 Standard deviation = 9.26

Analysis of the data in this table reveals that the average age of the participants is 31.83 (SD=9.26), with extremes of 21 and 60. The majority were women aged between 21 and 40 (81.3%), with a predominance of those between 21 and 30 (56.6%). 

Table 3: Distribution of participants by marital status

Marital statusWorkforcePercentage

The data in this table show that almost half the participants (46.6%) are single.

Table 4: Distribution of participants by level of education

Education levelWorkforcePercentage
Out of school72,2

In terms of level of education, women with secondary education (39.4%) and university graduates (34.4%) are the most represented.

Table 5: Distribution of participants by profession

Public and private administration6319,7

In terms of profession, hairdressers and braiders (25%), public administration employees (19.7%) and students (19.4%) are more represented.

2.3 Reasons for voluntary depigmentation skin depigmentation

The answers to the questions addressed to the participants were multiple-choice. Frequencies and percentages therefore exceed the total number of women.

Table 6: Distribution of women according to reasons for skin depigmentation

Reasons for skin depigmentationFrequencyPercentage (%)
Treatment of facial pimples4012,5
The desire to feel beautiful and attractive17855,6
Want to look like friends/models15347,8
At spouse's request9930,9
Mockery from friends and family9630
To be valued by society9529,7

The data in this table show that the main reasons given by women who undergo voluntary skin depigmentation are: "desire to feel beautiful and attractive" (55.6%), "desire to resemble friends/models" (47.8%), "spouse's request" (30.9%) and "ridicule from family and friends" (30%).

The various reasons have been grouped into three main categories:

- Beauty-attractiveness of fair complexion and self-esteem (feeling beautiful and attractive, being valued by society, treating facial pimples): 97.8%.

- Social pressure (requests from spouse, ridicule from family and friends): 60.9%.

- Mimicry (resembling friends and/or models): 47.8%.

Of these three categories, the one relating to modifying physical appearance to look more beautiful and attractive is the most important.

2.4. Self-esteem of these women

Table 4: Distribution of women according to their self-esteem

Total score on Rosenberg self-esteem scaleLevelWorkforcePercentage (%)
Less than 25Very low11836,9
More than 39Very strong00

The data show that most women who undergo voluntary depigmentation (91.3%) have negative self-esteem: very low self-esteem (36.9%) and low self-esteem (54.4%). None had very high self-esteem.

3. Discussion

This section focuses on two key areas: the reasons why women voluntarily depigment their skin, and their self-esteem.

3.1 Reasons for voluntary skin depigmentation

As a reminder, the results show that the reasons given by women who undergo voluntary skin depigmentation are: to feel beautiful and attractive (55.6%), to resemble friends or models (47.8%), a spouse's request (30.9%), mockery from friends and family (30%) and social appreciation (29.7%).

It's clear that the main reason for women undergoing voluntary depigmentation is the desire to change their physical appearance to appear more beautiful, attractive and self-important. Self-image modification is therefore at the heart of the practice of voluntary skin depigmentation. The category of reasons for beauty-attractiveness of fair complexion-enhancement (97.8%) is similar to the motivations found among Beninese women. Indeed, according to Glèlè-Ahanhanzo et al., the main motivations for using depigmenting products are the quest for beauty (60.06%) and self-esteem (34.06%) (3, 4). This frequency is slightly higher than that observed in Côte d'Ivoire, where 50% of women stated that the purpose of their use was to clarify their complexion and remove spots in order to look more beautiful (Kourouma et al. 2, 3).

The desire to look more beautiful in order to enhance self-esteem is explained by the fact that a fair complexion is considered a role model. The vast majority of women who undergo skin depigmentation (80%) are convinced that fair-skinned women are more attractive and beautiful than dark-skinned women (Kourouma et al., 2,3). Women thus prefer to give up their natural black complexion to become fair-skinned, for the sake of fair-skinned attractiveness and self-esteem. The crux of these women's behavior is their inferiority complex and their desire to look white. The practice of voluntary depigmentation is fuelled by racial prejudice and stems from the idea that black skin is inferior to white skin, as some respondents find that black skin is not valued at all (Nyiragasigwa 16). This is also revealed by Teclessou et al. who have shown that the various motivations for depigmentation are dominated by the search for fair skin (1). This is explained by the fact that fair skin and relaxed hair are the Western woman's model of beauty to be resolutely followed, unlike the traditional African model, which is not valued. Citing Hunter (2005), Ly reports that many women desire physical characteristics that resemble those of Western Caucasians (10). For other authors, African women depigment their skin because of self-denial, rejection of their bodies (Emeriau 113; 98) and to get rid of what causes shame, leading to self-hatred (Kouassi 100). 

Some authors have attempted to explain the original cause of the inferiority complex by invoking historical facts. They argue that colonization and slavery forged the prejudices of whites against blacks, giving rise to a feeling of inferiority in the latter, which they try to curb by depigmenting their skin (Bile 97; M'bemba-Ndoumba 102).

This situation gives rise to the feeling of not being valued, which diminishes self-esteem, self-confidence and the abilities of individuals (Hamed et al. 417). The result is a vicious circle in which loss of self-esteem leads to self-hatred (Kouassi 101) and an irrepressible urge to depigment. In addition, the practice of depigmentation is reinforced by certain perceived benefits associated with a fair complexion, including perceptions of personal and professional success (Ly 8).

However, inferiority complex and self-denial are not enough to give deep meaning to the desire to change body appearance. Aesthetic motivations are also mentioned in studies.

Ly believes that the motivations of women who depigment themselves are rooted in aesthetics and identity. She supports this idea by showing that Senegalese women build their feminine identity on beauty and appearance rituals. In this context, depigmentation is also a weapon of seduction. It is part of a strategy of seduction, firstly towards women and then towards men (4, 5).

Another important factor is the social pressure exerted by the spouse or the taunts of friends and family (60.9%). The results also reveal that some women engage in depigmentation at the request of their spouse (30.9%). Clearly, for both girls and women, the sexual partner or spouse plays an important role in the adoption of this practice. This is echoed by Ly, who says that men play an important role in the phenomenon. As husband or partner, he may appreciate and endorse the practice by buying the products or providing the monthly budget for their purchase (9). In this context, some women may bend to their spouse's will for fear of losing them. But women are also part of the seduction game.

Beyond the aesthetic logic, mimicry is also found in the discourse of women who practice depigmentation. They want to look like their friends and models (47.8%). Mimicry enables them to obey the aesthetic norms conveyed by society and to fit in. The much sought-after fair complexion enables them to conform to a social group that is that of "depigmented women" (Ly 6).

The influence of friends is important in the decision to depigment. The first use of depigmenting products is most often the result of aesthetic advice and is marked by a certain naivety (Ly 5). The mimetic approach is very preponderant and has been cited by all authors(Mahé et al. 28). This mimicry is encouraged by the media (Ly 8). Although the participants in the present study did not mention advertising directly, it is nevertheless supported by the idea of resembling models. Role models are identified in the social environment, on social networks, on TV or in magazines.

 Whatever the factors, the literature shows that beyond the benefits of voluntary depigmentation, many women suffer somatic and psychological complications.

Indeed, as Kourouma et al. show, the majority of women (75%) confessed to regretting depigmentation; 76.7% of them regretted it because of the appearance of dermatoses (3). But the findings are not unanimous. While some studies point to dissatisfaction with body image and negation of overall self-perception, others, like Ly, highlight the reinforcement of self-esteem and assertiveness (3). The question of self-esteem is therefore raised, and is the subject of the following section.

3.2 Women's self-esteem

As a reminder, the results of the present study indicate that most participants (91.3%) had negative self-esteem, ranging from very low (36.9%) to low (54.4%). These results concur with those of Guehi and Sawadogo, even though their study was not conducted specifically on self-esteem. The results of their study show general body dissatisfaction and an overall negative self-perception. They reveal that 59% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies, and 62.7% do not feel "attractive". Similarly, 62.8% of women have a negative overall perception of themselves, and 67.3%) don't feel valued (7).

Guehi and Sawadogo then show that these women's satisfaction and self-perception vary with age and duration of lightening product use. Older women are the most dissatisfied with their bodies, with relatively negative self-esteem, while those under the age of 20 show the highest peaks in body satisfaction and positive self-perception. In terms of duration, the results show that women who have had depigmentation for one year or less, show peaks in body satisfaction and positive self-esteem. Women with two to five years' use of lightening products, on the other hand, show body dissatisfaction and negative self-esteem. Body dissatisfaction and negative self-esteem reach high proportions in subjects with more than five years of depigmentation practice (7-9).

These results show that dissatisfaction with body image and negative self-perception are linked to the long duration of depigmentation and to women's advanced age. Dissatisfaction with body image and negative overall self-perception would therefore be the negative psychological repercussions of prolonged use of depigmenting products and in women of advanced age. This seems logical, from our point of view, insofar as physical deterioration is a natural phenomenon associated with advanced age. If we add to this the damage caused by depigmentation, it's clear that the consequences are more significant. The first moments of depigmentation seem to offer advantages in terms of aesthetic gain and self-esteem, but as time goes by, negative feelings surface, and in many cases create unease, disturbances of self-esteem and even identity.

The discrepancy with the results of Ly's study, which showed that depigmentation enhances self-esteem and assertiveness, is explained by the fact that the present study is quantitative and specifically assessed self-esteem. In addition, the socio-cultural context of Senegal, where Ly's study was carried out, is not identical to that of Togo.  

In the context of this study, it is difficult to say whether low self-esteem is the cause or the consequence of the practice of voluntary skin depigmentation. As a cause, low self-esteem may lead the women concerned to seek through depigmentation a means of self-esteem and narcissistic replenishment. It has been shown, for example, that the search for social acceptance and low self-esteem are factors likely to lead to recourse to cosmetic surgery(Meidani 50). As a consequence, low self-esteem is related to dissatisfaction with body image and overall negative self-perception. This could be explained by the fact that the quest for the ideal skin most often ends in failure. The repeated application of depigmenting products is constantly accompanied by dermatological complications, which enthusiasts try to camouflage with a host of tricks that prove ineffective. A vicious circle ensues, as the more women apply depigmenting products, the more apparent the health damage. The result is aesthetically disastrous, and the psychological repercussions are far-reaching, with the long-term onset of malaise (Ly 10).

The reasons for focusing on appearances touch on the narcissistic aspects of a person's personality. Seeking to look good is also seeking to value oneself. Self-esteem is an important facet of self-esteem, and touches on narcissism. Depigmentation therefore has a narcissistic dimension. As Ly has shown, the narcissistic dimension is linked to the quest for the ideal complexion. For her, the narcissistic dimension is widely observed in the group of depigmented women. The change in complexion confers a boost in self-confidence and self-esteem (10). However, the results of the present study show the opposite, with most of the participants having negative self-esteem.

Another aspect not directly related to the reasons given in the study concerns the addictive nature of depigmentation. Petit sees in depigmentation certain characteristics of addiction, described as a psychoaffective dependency phenomenon (7). According to Ly, the testimonials of depigmented women highlight their constant desire to go further and further in the lightening process (4).

This irresistible desire for depigmentation can be dangerous. The body undergoes numerous transformations in color and appearance, with the inevitable complications and after-effects. One of these complications is personality modification linked to the harmful effects of the products used. According to Ly, chromatic conversion and physical metamorphosis are sometimes accompanied by a change in personality, as corticoid-based products can induce addiction and sustain psychomotor excitement, leading to a certain disinhibition in women who undergo voluntary depigmentation. In addition, some women experience discomfort when observing the reflection of their image in the mirror (Ly 11). This reflects dissatisfaction with body image and negative overall self-perception (Kourouma et al. 3). Under these conditions, these women's self-esteem is likely to be negatively affected. The consequences of voluntary skin depigmentation for women seeking the ideal complexion therefore affect their psychological functioning.


Voluntary depigmentation of the skin is a widespread practice throughout the world, particularly among women. It is generally carried out for aesthetic reasons, driven by a desire for beauty, social pressure and mimicry. However, its medium- and long-term consequences are debasing and painful. The aim of this study was to identify the psychosocial factors underlying the practice of voluntary skin depigmentation. It was carried out on 320 female practitioners of voluntary depigmentation, aged between 21 and 60, with at least 6 months' use of lightening products and living in the Autonomous District of Greater Lomé. In addition to a questionnaire, the Rosenberg self-esteem scale was used to collect data. The results showed that 45.9% of women had been depigmenting their skin for less than a year. The main reasons given by these women revolve around three points: beauty-attractiveness of a fair complexion-self-esteem, social pressure and mimicry. In addition, 91.3% of these women have negative self-esteem, ranging from low to very low.

Ultimately, voluntary skin depigmentation has benefits, but also negative somatic and psychological consequences. This study has limitations due to its exploratory and descriptive nature. It has raised questions that need to be addressed in future research. Despite these limitations, the results suggest the need to develop prevention programs to educate the population about the negative repercussions of voluntary skin depigmentation.

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How to cite this article:

MLA: Kalina, Kaka. "Psychosocial factors of voluntary skin depigmentation among women in Lomé". Uirtus 1.2 (December 2021): 138-156.

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