Amira Adawe inside Karmal Square Somali Mall in Minneapolis, Minn.
MINNEAPOLIS — Karmel Square is a hub of the Somali community here, a colorful, cheerfully noisy hodgepodge of vendors and restaurants unofficially known as the Somali Mall. Amira Adawe stops by often to buy tea and chat in Somali with friends and relatives wearing hijabs and flowing, floor-length skirts. They greet her with smiles and hugs, and she calls them “auntie.”
Her visits are more than social, however. The public health advocate scans market shelves for skin lightening creams that may contain harmful toxins — tubes and jars sold under names such as Fair & Lovely, Prime White, and Miss Beauty 7 Days White.
Some women use the creams in hopes of erasing dark spots, but many rub them over their entire bodies multiple times a day in hopes of whitening their brown skin. The practice pervades many cultures in Africa, Asia, the Middle East — and many immigrant communities in the U.S. — and Adawe has made it her mission to end it.
She began her crusade as a graduate student, after she discovered that creams sold in many Twin Cities ethnic markets contained levels of mercury thousands of times higher than the amounts considered safe by the U.S. government. But her concerns go beyond the physical harm to women. She worries as much about the damage to their self-esteem.
In Somali and other cultures, the lighter-skinned daughter is often seen as more beautiful, Adawe explained recently; in fact, the Somali term for light-skinned — cadey — is considered a compliment. “It’s used as a term of endearment,” she said, “but I think it’s so wrong to say it.”
Public health agencies in several major cities have launched their own investigations of tainted skin creams, occasionally getting advice from Adawe along the way. And now Adawe has created The Beautywell Project, to combat the stigma faced by women with darker skin and take on the industry that promises them beauty in a jar.
By day, Adawe is now a manager for the Children’s Cabinet of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. In her “spare time,” she hosts a weekly radio show in Somali that reaches 80,000 people worldwide. She holds educational outreach sessions in Minneapolis and Kenya, talks with imams, and presents at national and international conferences. Sooner or later, most anyone connected with the skin-lightening issue seeks out Adawe. She fields personal pleas for help from Somali men in Minneapolis worried about their pregnant wives rubbing cream on their skin, as well as calls for help from Kenya, Canada, and Australia.
“We can’t address this issue without discussing beauty, what it means and ways to redefine beauty, as well as discussing and educating individuals about wellness,” she said in an interview.
She admits her goal is ambitious. The stigma runs deep, and skin-lightening creams are a multibillion-dollar business overseas, despite bans and public campaigns against the products in many African countries. In the U.S., creams are often smuggled in and sold in small, ethnic markets like at Karmel Square or purchased on the internet. They have been found in Somali, Hmong, Mexican, Dominican, and West Indies communities from California to Minnesota to New York. Users, and even sellers of the creams, are often unaware that they are harmful or illegal.