MIRRIAM Kaziya and Lilian Kalunga sit bubbly at a restaurant in Lusaka. The two sisters are both wearing heavy make-up and above-the-knee dresses. For Mirriam, her dress is short enough to reveal an elaborate tattoo covering her right thigh.

Both women are light complexioned. But they both have not been light-skinned from birth.

Their new complexion is a result of bleaching.

Though still considered controversial by society, Mirriam and Lillian do not flinch talking about their own transformation through skin bleaching.
They both laugh and giggle as they compare their before-and-after pictures on their phones. Mirriam refers to herself as a FBI (former black individual).
“I used to be really dark. I used to look like that man,” says Mirriam, pointing to a man sitting a few tables away.
Mirriam says she decided to bleach her skin because she usually felt bad whenever she was with her friend who had bleached her skin.

“I looked like her maid because my skin was dirty,” she says.
Then Mirriam decided to buy a bottle of serum. That was the beginning of her transformation journey.
It only took about two weeks for Mirriam to transform herself from a dark-skinned woman into what she is today.
She is very happy about her new skin tone.
“I probably look 10 years younger, when I’m 36,” she says.

Mirriam, who now makes and sells skin products, including lightening creams, says a woman’s confidence comes when she has glowing skin.

Her business is now thriving, with over 5,000 clients, not only in Zambia but in other countries as well. She also streamlines videos via Facebook showing how to use her products called Milly Beauty Products.
Mirriam uses mostly natural oils, kojic acid and steric acid to make her lightening products. She avoids using hydroquinone, saying it is bad for the skin.

When asked how she learned how make her skin care products, Mirriam says: “I read a lot on Google. When I’m home I don’t just sit and watch TV, I read about skin care.”

Mirriam’s dream is to grow her business and become a big name like Oprah Winfrey.
And for Mirriam, the transformation goes beyond her skin.
A few years ago, she was struggling to single-handedly raise four children after the death of her husband in 2011.
Overwhelmed by her circumstances, she had resorted to drinking and smoking. When she became depressed, she would usually get on dating sites just to chat with someone.

“I was doing it just to feel like I was in a relationship,” she says.
And to earn some money, Mirriam would patronise bars.
“Sometimes we would sit in a bar with my sister and when men bought us beer, we would not drink it, instead we would take it to the counter and exchange it for money so that we could buy something home,” she says.

But with a steady income through her business, Mirriam is now able to take her children to school.
But she has had to endure the tongue-lashing from people over her decision to bleach her skin and to promote bleaching. Sometimes people have insulted her on social media, but she says what she decides to do to her body is a personal matter.
“I feel good in this skin and no-one should come and tell me that I shouldn’t have done this,” she says. “This is a decision I made and no-one forced me. Even our parents used skin lightening products.”
As for Lillian, she was motivated to change her complexion after seeing her sister transform before her eyes.
“After seeing how my sister had changed, I also thought I should look like her,” she says.

Lillian seems to have hated her old dark skin so much so that she uses a derogative Nyanja term meaning fake product to describe herself before her transformation.
“Nenze gon’ga,” says Lillian as she bursts into laughter.
“I used to look like a girl who came from the village,” she adds.
Lilian says she used to feel bad about her complexion and usually suffered from low esteem.

“I used to feel shy when I went out, I couldn’t even wear something revealing,” she says.
“At least I’m now able to move with my head high,” says the 25-year-old.
Lillian, who is single, thinks men are more attracted to light-skinned women.
“Most men are attracted to my skin now,” she says. “They look at us to be expensive chicks. Any woman would love to look like divas, which we are.”
Lillian says her new skin has taken her to places.

The two sisters say their new look has even earned them roles in local movies, which are yet to be released.
Alisa Siyuni, who is Mirriam’s friend and one of her customers, has also bleached her skin.
Although she was already light-skinned, Alisa says she wanted to become even lighter.

Alisa is now almost the same complexion as her daughter, who is coloured with Caucasian blood.
“It is not a bad transformation,” Alisa says. “I am still a normal human being.”
She is dressed in an impossibly short red dress and readily shows off her new skin tone, which is accentuated by her long wig and heavy red lipstick.

“There is nothing wrong with it as long as there are no side effects,” she says.
Alisa is married and says her husband approves of her new complexion.
“When I started using the cream, my husband didn’t even notice,” she says. “I think he likes what he is seeing now.”
But Banzah Yumba, who is a beautician, thinks women who bleach their skin suffer from low self-esteem.

Banzah, who is dark-skinned herself, says when she was in school, she used to get bullied because of her dark complexion, which made her think that light-skinned women were more beautiful.
“I once entertained thoughts of bleaching my skin when I was a little older,” she says.
Banzah also thinks men get more attracted to light-skinned women, but she thinks it is foolish to judge beauty by the skin colour.

“There is a rush for women to become lighter nowadays,” she says.
Banzah blames the desire for women to become lighter-skinned on the Eurocentric view of beauty propagated mainly by the beauty industry.

“No-one should define beauty for me but myself,” Banzah says assertively.
As Mirriam and Alisa wander away in the crowded mall, they have many eyes rolling their way; people admiring their beauty or perhaps gobsmacked by the shortness of Alisa’s red dress? Or maybe both, who knows?

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