The fear of aging can be very harmful, particularly among women and young girls. Stigma attached to ageing emanates from fear of the five D’s: death; dying; dependence; disability and dementia (McQuire 2016).
Many women are fooled into associating ageing signs such as wrinkles or grey hair with ugliness that has to be avoided at all costs. Consequently, they go to great lengths to disguise their age through the use of harmful substances such as bleaching creams and hair dyes.
In Zimbabwe, women attempt to mask ageing through the use of illicit and harmful cosmetics, surgery and aggressive weight loss programmes. It has become fashionable, for example, to be called a “yellow bone” as a result of skin bleaching that leaves black women’s skin with a colour that approximates to yellow.
The bleaching creams erode the black pigment, leaving a person’s skin “pink” or “yellow” not the colour of a white skin but the “yellow bones” believe they look beautiful unlike in their original skin.
In most cases the lightening creams are banned substances that are obtained through the back door. The belief is that white skin is more beautiful than black skin and ageing cannot be visible in a white skin (a false belief).
The Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ) has warned against the sale of unregistered skin lightening products in the country. Some women in Zimbabwe are very desperate to the extent that they administer products such as oral or injectable glutathione.
The MCAZ warned that the use of the skin lightening creams has a trail of side effects. These include toxic effects on the liver, kidneys and the nervous system.
In addition, the side effects may include severe skin reactions such as Stevens Johnson syndrome, hives or allergic reactions, weight gain, losing pigmentation of hair, eye infections and disorders.
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Glutathione also affects the production of melanin, the pigment that gives the human skin, hair and eyes their colour.
However, the horrendous side effects don’t seem to deter those who want to be white when they are black.
Peer pressure and ignorance are the major drivers of the use of these harmful substances and the illusion that one can stay young forever. Due to peer pressure, some turn a deaf ear to information from medical experts. What is not known by these women is that no one can fight the ageing phenomenon as it is a natural process in human life. Ageing starts at birth and ends at death.
Besides the bleaching creams, some women spend fortunes on hair dyes.
Hair dyes are expensive as they are touched up frequently. Dying hair is a practice of changing the hair colour. This practice is prevalent among the youth and middle-aged women. Why changing the hair colour?
Among the youth, dying hair is considered as fashionable. However, research has shown that among middle-aged women it is done to cover grey hair that is considered less appealing.
This is because greying hair is a sign of ageing that is received with resentment by many, especially women. They want to change their hair to a colour that is “more desirable” or to restore the original hair colour that has faded as age sets in.
However, many people are ignorant of the types of hair dyes and the devastating effects they might cause to health. Researchers have categorised dyes as follows:
- Permanent hair dyes: These penetrate through the hair shaft, reaching the cortex. They need to be touched up at least after every 12 weeks. Most permanent hair dyes use ammonia to penetrate the hair shaft and increase the pH level.
- Semi-permanent hair dyes: They coat the hair shaft cuticle while partially penetrating the cortex.
- Temporary hair dyes: They don’t penetrate the hair cortex and need to be touched up every few weeks.
- Bleach: It is used to lighten hair cortex and colour dark hair like black and brown to lighter hair colours like blonde or red.
- Ammonia-free hair dyes: They are also called demi-permanent hair dyes. They don’t contain ammonia but include hydrogen peroxide, para-dyes, and resorcinol.
Research has established that over 5 000 different chemicals are used in the formulation of each dye. Therefore, the more we use dyes the more we expose ourselves to chemicals that may be hazardous to our health.
For instance, permanent hair colours usually contain ammonia (or chemicals similar to it). The dye reaches the cortex of the hair and bleaches out its natural pigment and essentially this damages the hair.
Like any other chemicals, dyes can cause allergic reactions, itching, skin irritation, redness or swelling on the scalp or other sensitive areas like the face and neck. Therefore, the more you colour your hair, the more you expose yourself to adverse reactions.
The root cause of all this is the perception that prevails in most societies that as people age they lose their beauty, usefulness to society and they become less productive.
The perception has a detrimental effect on people’s social, physical and psychological wellbeing. People end up with the notion that they must remain young which is impossible.
A lot needs to be done to educate the nation, particularly the youth, about the importance of ageing gracefully.
Long back people cherished the old as they were considered repositories of knowledge, even the youth aspired to be old because of the reverence that went with old age.
The knowledge they possessed was valued in African societies as they were consulted in all traditional practices at family and community levels.
Unfortunately, the value of the elderly vanished due to the emergence of Christianity, formal education and industrialisation.
Most importantly, the exclusion of ageing education in the school curriculum especially in Zimbabwe has negative effects on how ageing is viewed in society.
It is, therefore, important for policymakers and curriculum developers to include ageing education in the school curriculum.
Schools can educate people about ageing starting at an early stage of human development.
Ageing education can help to promote knowledge about ageing, thereby combating the negative attitudes about ageing (McGuire 2017).
Therefore, the school curriculum can help in removing gerontophobia and ageism in society and reduce possible damage to people’s wellbeing.
- Mashura Mudzingwa has worked in the education sector for more than 30 years. Her interests are in education and gerentology. She writes here in her personal capacity.