* Fashion week founder bans models using skin bleaching
* Up to 60 pct of Senegalese women may use products
* Dermatologist warns of health complications
By Elise Knutsen
DAKAR, June 24 (Reuters) - Backstage at Dakar Fashion Week a group of young women squeeze into impossibly high heels while others sit still as make-up artists paint their eyelids a shining emerald colour.
All legs and cheekbones, the models are subject to the same pressures as their counterparts walking runways in London, Paris, and New York. And perhaps more.
Like many women from the streets of Senegal, some fashion models in West Africa have bleached their skin, seeking to achieve a "café au lait" colour regarded by some as the aesthetic ideal.
This year, however, Senegal's marquee fashion event is making a stand against the damaging practice.
"I am against it," said Adama Ndiaye, better known as Adama Paris, who started the annual fashion fete in 2002.
Ndiaye announced at the opening of Dakar Fashion Week that she had banned any models using skin depigmentation cream from participating in the six-day event.
A local newspaper, Sud Quotidian, claimed more than 60 percent of Senegalese women use skin bleaching products for non-medical reasons.
Women of all classes and education levels use these often unregulated skin creams. Well-heeled and unshod women across Senegal bare the tell-tale signs of long-term bleaching - blotches of discoloured skin on their arms and faces.
"I'm trying to teach them to like themselves," said Ndiaye of the natural-toned models selected for this year's show.
Self-esteem is not the only issue at stake, according to dermatologist Fatoumata Ly.
"In my practice, I see a huge number of women with complications from this practice," Ly said.
Women often use prescription-strength corticosteroid creams to lighten their skin, she said.
"When absorbed into the blood stream, corticosteroids pose serious risks, particularly for the heart," she said. Skin cancer is also a potential side effect.
This year's collections emphasised sleek minimalist designs, in forceful primary colours and jet blacks, with designs targeting international women. Models strutted in towering Louboutin platform pumps down a runway inside a luxurious nightclub.
The African designers showcasing their talents hailed Ndiaye's public stance at the event, which ended on Sunday.
Sophie Nzinga Sy, a couturier educated at the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York, was infuriated when she saw huge billboards promoting skin lightening products springing up around Dakar.
"It was ridiculous," she said of the blanched face used in the advertising campaign. "Our skin is something that we should value."
Sidling nervously between hair and make-up stations, models also expressed their support for Ndiaye's initiative. "I think it's a great idea," said Dorinex Mboumba. "It will discourage others from the practice."
"We don't need to change the colour of our skin to be beautiful."
For Ndiaye herself, the stand against skin bleaching largely boils down to aesthetics.