Hydroquinine, bleach, lime juice: take your pick. Each of them will lighten your skin and also leave you with inflammation or ochronosis or worse. How far would you go to have the best butt in town? In 21st century South Africa, Fumi May wonders why anyone would care about being fair down there.
The first time I ever heard of anal bleaching was in a seedy leather bar in the depths of inner-city Johannesburg. A place furnished with leather slings and lit by television monitors beaming porn like flashing strobes, with the smells of lubricant and cum commingling in a heavy, sweaty mix. There I was, on the outer reaches of conventional morality, without a clue as to what could be done to the inner reaches of the human body. My companion, the one who broke the news to me, was a handsome middle-aged white man with a tuft of grey fur poking proudly over an unbuttoned leather vest. He sported a studded leather jockstrap, of course, under which I guessed lay a cockring and what looked to be an impressive set of balls. He introduced himself as Paul, and told me I had a nice body. I thanked him politely, and carried on drinking my beer. He soldiered on with the small talk and I tried to deflect it. I was a little self-conscious.
I fixed my focus on a television screen and made quite a ceremony of watching the night’s episode of Generations, demurely avoiding the other screens, where assorted men indulged in more vigorous exertions than the inane batting of Queen Moroka’s eyelids. Paul was a persistent fellow. He bought me my next beer and sidled closer. I’m glad he did, because he turned out to be rather charming. I told him what I did for a living. He told me he was an investment banker from Sunninghill and an art collector. I was impressed by the fact that he collected works by young contemporary artists, whose names he carefully recited, taking care to pronounce the ones with Xhosa or Shona names just right.
“You speak so well. For a white guy, I mean,” I said to him. He got the joke.
Once my guard was lowered, we gravitated to more pressing matters. We discussed the aesthetics of sex. Preferences: cut or uncut, long and thin or long and thick, clean or hairy, top or bottom. You know, the usual. Then he asked me if I liked dark or light asses. I was completely taken aback. My eyes narrowed, and I took this as my cue to grind an axe for which I’d long sought a grindstone. I launched into a tirade on how as a black man in South Africa I had issues with dating white South African men. I told him how boring it was to look through profiles on dating sites that read “Caucasians only” and, as if it were any consolation, the condescending codicil “Sorry, just my preference.” But that wasn’t what he meant at all. He told me he preferred an even-toned ass – black, white, Asian, whatever, just even-toned. He pointed to a screen near us. And there I saw it: a flawless, clean-shaven, even-toned manhole. It fluoresced and glistened in that dank bar like a halo in the fog, and I felt my sleeping member stir.
“Like that,” Paul said approvingly. “There are creams you can use to get yours to look like that if you want.”
As an enthusiastic and long-standing homosexual, I have seen my fair share of asses, and yet I had never encountered this preference before. I’m not sure I even understood it. At the time, I had just started shaving my pubes, after impolite remarks from strangers as to whether I was vying for a world record for the largest man-made forest. (My reaction was usually to point out that that was an impossibility: Johannesburg currently held that title and as a size twenty-eight twink, I wasn’t unseating an entire city any time soon.) The words had their effect, however; eventually I got myself some hair-removal cream – and I have been as smooth as the day I was born ever since. It hasn’t been easy. The creams have had their effect as well, and I have painfully learnt that the cost of a smooth groin is constant itchiness and all sorts of ungainly bumps. What’s a man to do these days? It wasn’t enough that I had risked in-grown hair, all manner of infection, and death by toxic vapour in the quest for pubic beauty. No. Apparently I would now have to turn my ass into a pretty pattern that anyone but me could see.
We departed separately. Paul left me a note at the counter where my clothes had been deposited. It was his phone number and an invitation to dinner. He also enclosed a card for a spa he said was reputable and would do me for free if I mentioned his name. Ridiculous, I thought. And also, intriguing. As you have no doubt discerned, I am an impressionable fellow. I’ll try anything once. I plotted a course of action.
I first consulted close friends. I broke it to them over dinner.
“What’s that?” Jennifer asked with genuine innocence.
For a moment there was silence as we all tried to figure if she was being for real. Her earnest American-ness had tripped us up enough times before for us to be unsure of her seriousness. Turns out she was. It wasn’t just her – quite a few of my friends had never heard of this exotic ritual.
“It’s right up there with vajazzling in the stakes of weird things people do to their nethers. Should I get you a Groupon for it?” Sarah said. Jen struggled to keep up and we fell out of our chairs laughing
I told Jen what it was. She was genuinely puzzled, and asked more questions – how do they do it? Where do they do it? Is it safe? What’s in the cream? And more. These Americans can be insatiable in their need to know. Jen’s questions lit a tiny fire in me; I needed to know too. Sadly, I had lost the card Paul left for me, so when I arrived back at my flat after dinner that night, I went straight to Google. The first things to come up were YouTube videos of testimonials from female American porn stars. “Basically I wanna be like an albino – but just around my sphincter,” drawled a dark-haired beauty as she made a circling motion with her index finger. I tried localising my search to find South African stories. I found an article on one of our local news websites. Whoever wrote it had done her research thoroughly. She had quotes from dermatologists and local suppliers and concluded that the South African anal bleaching capital was Durban.
I was excited. I tried to track down the supplier mentioned in the piece. I quickly descended into a Google spiral as I fought to keep track of the information. I found a supplier, and I was determined to try it out. What harm could come of it? I had just listened to seasoned veterans of the procedure extol its virtues, and not once did I hear a word of caution. This was it: I was ready to ascend the next rung of sexual aesthetics. I had a vision of the new, improved me – a clean-shaven, even-toned, thirty-year-old twink. I would become the chosen one, just like Neo from the Matrix, the difference being that my kingdom of Zion would consist not so much of embattled, human revolutionaries as seedy Joburgers looking for casual gay sex on the underground scene. I didn’t bother to finish the reading the article and went to sleep a very happy homo.
In the morning I woke with a song in my heart and a spring in my step. I waited until a reasonable hour to call, and dialled the number. The phone rang a few times and a woman answered.
“Hello, I’m interested in your anal bleaching service. Can you please tell me more about it?”
“I’m sorry, what?” she said, sounding a little flustered.
“I’ve been reading up on anal bleaching and I came across an article where you were listed as the sole supplier of this product, so I was wondering if I could come in for a session. It says here that the first application is usua…”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” she said, cutting me off.
“NO, sorry, I don’t know anything about that. Thank you. Bye.”
She hung up.
I was deflated. I thought of an article I had read a few years ago by the late John Matshikiza. In the article, he related the story of how a friend, after receiving one of the most memorable massages of his life from a parlour in Cyrildene (Johannesburg’s Chinatown) had asked the receptionist if he could introduce his friend, John, to the establishment’s expert ministrations. The initial response was an emphatic “Yes, yes, tell your friend to come anytime.” The Chinese parlour’s enthusiasm sustained until the friend, “who is Jewish, by the way, but passes for white” mentioned that John was black. “No, we can’t do that,” the receptionist lady said. “Sorry, can’t do black people.”
What else could I have done wrong but be black? The article clearly quoted the woman’s employers as the sole supplier of anal-bleaching cream. I had corroborated the claim by searching for the company that made the cream itself, and I looked up the names and contact details for suppliers in every conceivable corner of the world – which was incidentally how I found her number. Hold on, how did she even know I was black? I have one of those Model C accents, and growing up, kids in my township called me “umlung’omnyama” (‘coconut’ in common parlance). I did not mention my name when I made the call.
Or perhaps she was put off because I am a man. I have been gifted with a very deep baritone since about the age of ten, from which time onwards, there has been no mistaking me for a woman. Perhaps her company doesn’t administer this service to men; perhaps she was just embarrassed to be talking to one. That was more understandable, but only led to more questions. Where do all these white men have their go to get their manholes bleached then?
I went back to the article as I contemplated my next move. And then I saw a word that made my eyes pop out of their sockets: hydroquinone. That shit they have been putting in skin-lightening creams since our grandmothers’, mothers’ and aunts’ time. That Hitler-affirming-black-is-savage-go-on-and-hate-your-melanin crap that eventually gave them amashubaba. I finally knew what I was up against.
Take the singer Mshoza, who just a few months ago famously bleached her entire body. For her, hydroquinone was a way to make herself more beautiful and more desirable to her (ironically, now ex-) husband. According to Mshoza, she felt great because it made her skin “clear” and made her “look younger.” As far as self-gratification goes, I know this is true: everlasting youth and beauty is about as good as it gets. And I know that I’m not above seeking this gratification myself. I revel in the fact that at my advanced age I still occasionally get asked for ID at bars. I know that I would kill to permanently win my daily battle with acne. In many ways, I understand Mshoza. Sure, it’s unlikely that I will ever personally get to view the effects of bleach on my anus. But that’s not the point. Someone else will; maybe someone who appreciates it, holds it in high esteem and then proceeds to perform annilingus on me until I can’t control myself any more.
Still, I had to ask myself if any of this was reason enough to consider risking amashubaba in so precious a place as that. I remembered how my mother and other well-put-together ladies in her circle of friends would make fun of acquaintances who had fallen into the hydroquinine hole. The scars that these unfortunate women bore were more than just the sub-dermal effects of a dangerous chemical. They were the scars of attempting to be closer to whiteness – and failing. A punishment for attempting to be “more” beautiful and achieving the reverse.
I learned the medical term for amashubaba from one of the doctors quoted in the article on anal bleaching. In medicine, they call it ochronosis, which sounds both ominous and archaic. It’s an unfamiliar word among my set, but the underlying sentiment is widespread and well-known: for black people in South Africa, we know it as the quest to elevate to a different race and a better place. We know it as the indoctrination of black women – and more than a few black men. I hadn’t even begun my treatment for ultimate anal beauty and I was already feeling sick.
Nevertheless, I was still intrigued. I retraced my steps, and started at the very beginning. By this time I had moved to Cape Town, which provided the impetus for my renewed search. It is, after all, the Mother City, home to more gay people per square kilometre than any other city, town or village in the country – or so they say. If there was an anal bleaching scene anywhere in the country, wouldn’t it be here?
I found a salon catering exclusively to the grooming needs of men tucked away in a corner of Greenpoint (Cape Town’s gay village). It was called The Glasshouse, and it sounded promising. Moreover, a cursory trawl through the salon’s website confirmed that they stocked the American wonder cream that promised to deliver me a readily rimmable rectum. I called the salon, unsure of how I would broach the subject, smarting as I was from the rebuff I received during my first attempt. My call was picked up, and I was tongue-tied. For some reason, I said “Hi, I was wondering if you cut black hair.” Well, that was silly. Everyone knows that black men in South Africa do not have their hair cut in places that offer hot stone massages and facials.
“Why, yes we do,” came the cheerful response. That took me by surprise. I had come across a number of ‘white’ salons in the country that didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t offer their services to black clients. This lady’s warm, welcoming tone was a bit of a shock. I kept my true intentions hidden and stuck to the haircut story. I would sneak the question of bleaching in later. In person, maybe. I set up an appointment.
I’ll admit I was relieved that the lady who cut my hair turned out to be black. I cannot imagine how laborious it would have been otherwise to try and explain what a “German Cut” is. She knew what I wanted. For precisely ten times what my last hair cut cost me, I bought slightly more than a haircut. I bought control. I could spell out every single nuance I wanted, and she executed them perfectly. (My last haircut involved explaining the word ‘asymmetrical’ to a barber who did not understand any of the languages I speak). Emboldened by my perfect hair, and drawn together by the experience of having my hard-earned cash safely exchanged, I struck up an exploratory conversation with the woman who headed operations at the salon.
“I noticed your price list includes waxing of legs and chests, and then there’s mention of “intimate waxing”. What is that about?” I said casually.
“Oh, that’s just for when some of our clients request… uhm… let me get you the price list,” she said, awkwardly.
“So,” I said, scanning the list, “are these the most exotic treatments on offer? I’ve read about some crazy things people do, like anal bleaching.”
Her eyes widened slightly.
“Oh, no! We don’t do that,” she said with a nervous giggle. “But we do have skin-lightening treatments that are specifically for, uhm, sensitive areas. Like… come let me show you.”
She led me towards a display cabinet and showed me the product she was speaking of, the one for sensitive areas. It was to be shortly discontinued. The sole supplier in South Africa was getting out of the business and the new supplier had jacked up the price of the product, which meant she had to raise the price of each jar by two hundred rands. “Ludicrous,” she said. She was considering a replacement: a local product that was available at a fraction of the cost of the imported cream. Instead of hydroquinine, the South African cream contained something called “decabutin” and as many as four “peptides” which I can only presume was better than one or two or three. I tried half-heartedly to research decabutin, and didn’t get very far, except to establish that it advertised itself as a safer alternative to hydroquinone – though how, or why, wasn’t very clear. It also turned out that the retiring wholesale supplier was none other than the person I had earlier called, the curt lady on the phone. That woman did not run a salon and merely supplied salons with the product. Her abruptness had nothing to do with either my blackness or my maleness. I had simply knocked on the wrong door.
As it turns out, we’ve all been knocking on the wrong door, and I don’t mean just black South Africans. Across Latin America, Asia and, of course, Africa, skin-lightening is an absolutely booming business. Native shame may be the least charming colonial hangover of them all, but it works like a charm at the retail till. I even read reports of a certain ‘Clean and Dry Intimate Wash’ from India – because, after all, what Indian women need most is a way to lighten their dark vaginas – and the hangover turned into a splitting headache. In the course of my investigations, a friend of mine said, in jest, “Why don’t you use Lemon-Lite?” Lemon-lite was a famed skin-lightening product I last saw in my teens. I Googled it and found to my horror that it was still available, with an even wider range of products – including its flagship “vanishing” cream.
At the salon, I found out that the American anal bleaching cream is fairly popular. The demographics of its user base surprisingly span both white and non-white men. As to exactly which intimate areas of the body these men are bringing light to, however, no one officially knows. As for my own personal ambitions in this regard, I had none left. Never before had I spent so much time and energy researching a cosmetic procedure so strange and pointless, and frankly, I was just exhausted. My desire to own the best ass in town was finally thwarted by three things: decision fatigue, murky politics, and the disquieting possibility that I might not be the first black man in town with a white ass.
For now, I was the proud owner of an excellent and unique haircut, and it was enough.
Fumi May’s story also features in the Power Money Sex Reader.