It has long been noted that black men prefer lighter-skinned women, both in sub-Saharan Africa and in the black diaspora. For the United States, we can quote several writers. “A fair Negro woman … has such superior marriage chances that this fact is generally recognized as the major explanation of why passable women do not seem to pass out of the Negro caste as often as do passable men” (Myrdal 1944: 698). “The frequency with which Negro men choose women fairer than they are attests at least in part to the connection in the mind of the black man between fair skin and beauty” (Grier and Cobbs 1968:80). “Several research projects conducted in the last few years suggest that African-American men are more attracted to women who are lighter than they are, and that African-American women believe light skin makes them, or would make them, more appealing” (Layng 2006).
In sub-Saharan Africa, women often use skin-bleaching products, usually hydroquinone but also mercury, topical steroids, and Javel water. Ntambwe (2002) cites prevalence rates of 25% in Bamako, Mali, up to 52% in Dakar, Senegal, up to 35% in Pretoria, South Africa, and up to 77% in Lagos, Nigeria. He adds, “the majority of black men prefer light-skinned women as partners, girlfriends or wives. Several authors have stated that these light-skinned women are perceived as attractive, intelligent, moral, sexually more desirable, even chaste; whereas dark-skinned are regarded as mean, evil, stupid, even as not trust-worthy.”
This preference is often put down to European influence. Myrdal (1944:697), for instance, felt that African-Americans were internalizing Euro-American color prejudice. Others, like Layng (2006), simply see an adoption of dominant norms of beauty: “it was the Europeans and their descendants who were both numerically and economically dominant. so it is not surprising that, over time, a greater number of African-Americans, especially those who were upwardly mobile, adopted the prevailing views on physical attractiveness.”
Made in Africa?
There is evidence, however, that this aesthetic preference is native to Africa. Ardener (1954) found it to be widespread among the Ibo of Nigeria, including generations born before the colonial period. In a survey of the Human Relations Area Files, van den Berghe and Frost (1986) noted a consistent cross-cultural preference for lighter skin in women but not in men. Sub-Saharan Africa is no exception, as shown by these extracts from the ethnographic literature:
Bambara (Mali) –
The Bambara are not unmoved by the beauty of a woman’s form; they can distinguish a well-formed body from a malformed one, a pretty woman from an ugly one, and they find a coppery skin more attractive than one of ebony black. (Henry 1910:217)
In skin colour they vary from black through chocolate brown to bronze, which the natives call “red” (bon-ze’e) and regard as the most attractive bodily hue. (Fortes 1945:7)
Hausa (Nigeria) –
Light skin colour, referred to as “red”, ranks high in the Hausa criteria of beauty; many variations of colour, from black to a very light reddish brown are seen. (Smith 1965:264)
Ibo (Nigeria) –
In Ibo culture, however, these yellowish or reddish complexions are considered more beautiful than the darker, ‘blacker,’ complexions. … It is true that, in West Africa, government has for many years been identified with pale-skinned Europeans, but the Ibo evidence suggests that preference for paleness of complexion is indigenous. (Ardener 1954:71-72)
Azande (Sudan) –
Of the women and girls, some with babies, he kept the most beautiful in Zande eyes, those brightest of eye and clearest of skin and with full breasts, for his couch. (Evans-Pritchard 1937:60)
Men and women affirm without any hesitation that men are black, hot and hard and women are white, cold and soft. (Holy 1988:471)
Somali (Somalia) –
Men appreciate women of good height and stature, with good hips and breasts, and plump but not fat. A reddish tinged skin is thought highly of in preference to a dark dull black. (Lewis 1962:13)
Masai (Kenya, Tanzania) –
Further requirements for being regarded as beautiful are an oval face, white teeth, black gums, a skin color as light as possible … (Merker 1910:18)
Rundi (Rwanda, Burundi) –
Beauty does not count very heavily, but a man is not displeased if people notice that his wife is attractive and well-fleshed, has a long and narrow nose, a light skin, and is somewhat like a cow. (Albert 1963:203)
Ganda (Uganda) –
There is, in respect of the ordinary negroid complexion, a preference for paleness deeply rooted in the Ganda ideal of beauty. … The Ganda concept of skin pigmentation considers light coloured complexions to be differing shades of white. A dark brown skin colour is said to be — eruyeru, that is, somewhat white. A really brown-reddish-yellow person is said to be mweru = white, which in comparison would be considered to be blonde; and this in the Ganda aesthetic language is considered as red = myufu, the most perfect skin pigmentation. (Lugira 1970:34-35)
Nairobi (Kenya) –
In the future the increasing use of skin lightening creams such as “Ambi” may eventually reduce the importance of natural skin color. But whatever the case, in Nairobi of the 1960’s, as throughout much of Kenya, the lighter “brown” girls are usually considered to be more beautiful than “black” girls — and the more successful prostitutes are invariably “brown.” (McVicar 1969:242)
Ila, Lunda, Luvale, and Chokwe (Zambia) –
Here too words meaning literally “white” are commonly used to refer to light skins though “red” may also be used. Light skins are admired just as much as is shown to occur among the Ibo, and young girls discussing the possible attractions of various young men have often been heard to emphasize “very black” as a point against someone. In the past at least one attraction of a light skin apart from its intrinsic appeal was the fact that the tattooing stood out against it in strong contrast. Very black skins are not infrequently thought to go hand in hand with inherited witchcraft and a light skin to indicate its absence. Dark-skinned women conscious of their possible disadvantage have been heard to tell men that light-skinned women will be found to be sexually unsatisfying. (White 1954)
Ngoni (Malawi) –
Young men say that what they like in a girl is a light skin colour, a pretty face, and the ability to dance and to copulate well. (Barnes 1951:30)
Kgatla (Botswana) –
… the generally admired type is a light-skinned girl of somewhat heavy build, with prominent breasts and large, firm buttocks. (Schapera 1966: 46)
Aesthetic preference = Mate preference = Mate choice?
But does this aesthetic preference translate into mate preference, and thence into actual mate choice? Not necessarily. First, with the exception of Khoisan and Pygmy hunter-gatherers, sub-Saharan societies are highly polygynous, with over 40% of wives living in polygynous unions. Polygyny creates a situation of too many men competing for too few women. Thus, men are less able to translate their mate preferences into actual mate choice.
Nor does aesthetic preference necessarily translate into mate preference, at least not among traditional rural Africans. Vilakazi (1962: 59-60) states: “The traditional Zulu does not make physical beauty a first priority or even an important qualification in a wife; and the skin colour of the woman is of little importance.” In a rating study, Dixson et al. (2006) examined criteria of sexual attractiveness among subsistence farmers in Bakossiland, Cameroon, including the preferred skin color of a potential female partner. The result? No consistent preference. Ardener (1954:72) has commented on this ambivalence among the Ibo of Nigeria:
In the choice of a wife, yellow-skinned girls are regarded as beauties, and, other things being equal, they command higher bride prices. On the other hand it is generally held, especially by dark-complexioned persons, that yellow-skinned people are not as strong as the dark and do not live as long. A ‘black’ girl is said to be a harder worker. … A Mission headmaster was of the opinion that the preference for yellow girls was greater nowadays than in his youth. He thought that the reason for this was that people formerly looked for strength rather than beauty and tended to marry black girls. He claimed that black people had greater powers of endurance, and he cited his own village where, he said, of the oldest six or seven people, only one was yellow.
McVicar (1969:242) makes a similar observation for Kenya when contrasting ‘black’ and ‘brown’ African women: “Among these tribes black girls are usually regarded as hard workers, possibly because many consider themselves fortunate enough to be married.”
Sub-Saharan Africa, together with New Guinea, differs from most culture areas by its high level of polygyny and correspondingly low level of paternal investment in child care (Bourguignon and Greenbaum 1973: 51; Goody 1973; Pebley and Mbugua 1989; Welch and Glick 1981). To maximize their reproductive potential, African men seek self-reliant women who can raise children largely on their own. This traditionally meant being able to produce enough food through hoe farming—outdoors and in the sun. There was thus a premium on darker women. Lighter women may have been preferred aesthetically, but this preference remained unexpressed.
The last sentence may bother evolutionary psychologists. If traditional, rural African men improve their reproductive success by choosing darker women, wouldn’t natural selection promote this choice by making it enjoyable? Wouldn’t it hardwire a preference for darker women into the neural circuitry? It might—if the learned belief that darker women work harder in the sun is not so entrenched as to make rewiring unnecessary. More importantly, it might if enough time elapses.
But relatively little has. Agriculture first arose south of the Sahara only 6,000-7,000 years ago, near the Niger’s headwaters, and essentially involved cultivation of sorghum, pearl millet, cow pea, and other crops by female hoe farmers (Frost 2001; Murdock 1959:64-68). This nucleus of farming populations first spread throughout West Africa and then, starting about 3,000 years ago, went on to people central, eastern, and southern Africa. Previously, sub-Saharan Africa was largely home to Khoisan and Pygmy hunter-gatherers …who were light brown in color. Jared Diamond has described this demographic expansion in “How Africa Became Black” of Guns, Germs and Steel.
In any case, all human populations seem to share the same hardwired influences on notions of physical beauty. Children as young as 2-3 months of age will spend more time looking at female faces that adults have rated as attractive, this being so for either white infants looking at faces of black women rated by black men or black infants looking at faces of white women rated by white men (Langlois et al. 1987; Langlois and Stephen 1977). Similar findings have been obtained from adults (Maret 1983; Miller 1969).
Why are blacks so black?
Is it just coincidence that female hoe-farming populations are so dark-skinned? (i.e., the agricultural peoples of sub-Saharan Africa and New Guinea). Indeed, they’re much darker than other populations at similar latitudes with similar levels of solar UV radiation, notably Austronesians (Malays, Polynesians), tropical Amerindians, and Khoisans. These other populations, however, have much less polygyny and much higher paternal investment.
The standard explanation is that these lighter-skinned populations are relative newcomers to the tropics. Hence, natural selection has not had enough time to darken their skin. But how long is long enough? Amerindians entered the tropics at least 12,000 years ago. That’s 500 generations. Australia was peopled by modern humans about 50,000 years ago and its indigenous inhabitants are only just beginning to show a north-south gradient in skin color. If this selection pressure has been as weak in Eurasia and Africa as it apparently has been in the Americas and Australia, it would need over 100,000 years to create the skin color difference between black Africans and northern Chinese and about 200,000 years to create the skin color difference between black Africans and northern Europeans (Brace et al. 1999). Yet modern humans began to spread out of Africa only 60,000 or so years ago.
And what about the Khoisans? Their in situ residence in south-central Africa has a very deep time depth and this region has one of the world’s highest levels of UV radiation—not only because of its tropical latitudes but also because of its relatively high altitude and open landscape (Jablonski and Chaplin 2000, see Figures 1&3). Yet their skin color is a light yellowish-brown.
An alternate explantion is that human skin color varies in response to both natural selection and sexual selection (Aoki 2002; Frost 1994, 2007; Manning et al. 2004). Female hoe-farming societies, with their weaker sexual selection of women and different mix of wife-choice criteria, would shift the selective balance further away from sexual selection and further toward natural selection. In other words, natural selection for darker skin, to protect against sunburn and skin cancer, would encounter less resistance from sexual selection for lighter-skinned women.
Today, hoe farming is disappearing. As agriculture becomes mechanized and as people move off the land, Africa is entering a new social environment where men no longer choose wives for their ability to work hard in the sun. Increasingly, African women are supporting themselves and their children through work in the service economy—with its emphasis on charm and visual presentation. The circumstances of life are now promoting rather than hindering the aesthetic preference for lighter-skinned women.
Africans are aware that their behavior has changed in this regard, as it has in others. But why is less clear. Many black intellectuals, especially those of the diaspora, imagine a past where African men preferred black as the color of female beauty—a past before slavery, colonialism, and glossy magazines. In fact, the reality was more complex. Before European contact, black Africans saw themselves neither as ‘black’ nor as ‘Africans.’ They saw themselves as … people. Like people elsewhere, they admired physical beauty. But beauty does not fully determine mate preference, just as mate preference does not fully determine actual mate choice. In the transition from thought to act, the circumstances of life can get in the way, in Africa as elsewhere.
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