Skin whitening


by guest
27th December, 2010 at 10:14 am    

This is a guest post by Eshaan Akbar

Oft-repeated family stories tend to have a mythical characteristic to them – particularly when they relate to many generations past. But one story has an altogether different type of tale in our family that continues to amaze those who hear it.

My great grandmother had the good fortune of being born into a wealthy family of landowners who branched out into businesses ranging from tea gardens to garments. The day she was to eventually get married, the groom-in-waiting turned up with his family who offered his hand in marriage. Everything was fine until they saw the complexion of my great grandmother – slightly darker than wheatish. Sensing the reluctance of the groom’s family, her father summoned some weighing scales, sat her on one of the scales and piled gold jewellery on the other until the value of the gold equalled the value of his daughter. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sexist? Yes. Archaic? A little. Consigned to the past? No. As part of every Bangladeshi wedding, the most important ceremony is the ‘Gaye Holud’ (turmeric on the body), not least because this is where all the singing and dancing happens. But, most importantly, it is where turmeric paste is applied to the body of the bride a few days before the wedding to ensure her complexion is the fairest it can be on the big day.

A fairer than fair Aishwariya Rai on the cover of Elle magazine shouldn’t surprise anyone. Kareena Kapoor, already quite fair by Bollywood standards, looked pasty when she graced the cover of Elle whilst Katrina Kaif, half-Indian and half-English, could have been called Karen Keats and no one would have batted an eyelid.

But all this merely reflects the inherent existence of fair skin being a pre-requisite to beauty which, naturally, filters its way up to psyche of the media. The images they then portray, enter the mindsets of those who are new to the ‘game of beauty’ and they go on to accept this as the universally accepted vision of beauty.

It’s not just South Asians who are at this. Europeans seem to go the opposite way with the likes of Cheryl Cole and Eva Longoria being doused in make up and have special lighting effects that make them seem more tanned.

This will not change overnight. Cultural influences over hundreds of years have led to our vision of beauty being as it is. If we are to change this, people of darker skin colours need to exert greater influence in popular culture through books, films and the arts. We’ve even let blue people create the highest grossing film of all time.


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  1. James Killin — on 27th December, 2010 at 10:56 am  

    There was a TV advert running when I was in India this summer, in which a ‘dark’ man (the ‘dark’ had quite evidently been applied artificially) tried to get into a film, but was turned away because of his skin tone. Shahrukh Khan dutifully appeared, and offered him whatever it is that’s the male equivalent brand of ‘Fair & Lovely’. Hey presto, he ‘lightened’ his skin, got the job on the film, got the girl.

    It’s troubling to see such film megastars endorsing products and practices that amount to a subjugation of people based on an aesthetic. Even the Tamil film industry seems to cast a larger number of ‘fair’ actors now, with people like Surya crossing over into Bollywood.

  2. Kismet Hardy — on 27th December, 2010 at 1:18 pm  

    Bored as I am of this topic and weary of repeating myself but wary that I ought to, I edit an asian woman’s lifestyle mag and a wedding mag (see link above) and if we can just hone in on the wedding scene:

    We have a regular 50-page section where the nation’s best bridal make-up artists showcase their bridal make-up wizardry. Not one, in the 11 years, has one of them dared to feature a dark model. Why? Because they want to perpetuate a media myth? Or because they don’t want to go out of business? And what makes someone go out of business? When no one cares about their sanctimonious drive to change society but gives people who pay for a service what they want.

    Why do Asian women want to look lighter on their wedding day? Is it because they are not brown nd proud? Of course they are. No British Asian, however fair she may be, is under any illusion that she is actually white. So why go lighter? Because when your father has forked out 40,000 (the average price of an asian wedding, recession notwithstanding), she’s not going to turn up to the biggest day of her life risking hearing the whisper of some wanky aunt muttering: the bride looks too dark.

    That’s society. Media exists to mirror it, to try change it is just pompous and unworkable. We’re a shallow industry catering to a market that you think is shallow, but our job isn’t to insult the hands that feed us

    Ultimately, Asians who care about beautification, by and large, prefer to be fairer. English women who care about beautification, by and large, prefer to be bronzer. It’s a straight forward beauty choice and if you think ‘real women’ shouldn’t care, it’s as judgemental as it is patronising

  3. rita is bitter — on 27th December, 2010 at 2:09 pm  

    I’m sorry Kismet, I think your comment is absolutely ridiculous. Luckly I’m partially deaf so I wouldn’t hear the wanky aunt mentioning how dark I looked. I understand you are bored of this topic but by and large the women who do want to make themselves look fairer on their wedding day are NOT brown and proud and that is the whole issue. Magazines like ones you work for that serve up this fanciful look and often using white models to stage wedding shoots help to purport this. Adverts of skin lightening creams alongside said shoots are just another way to make the brown woman less proud it hurts me so much to see black and asian women attending endocrinology clinics with addisonian crises from using these creams with often lethally high levels of steroids.

    Yes it is a choice, Westerners of average body size are subjected to pictures of “curvy” models (read size 8 with cup C tits not really curvy) and probably feel just as bad as the asian women who are subjected to the fair and lovely bride but by and large I have noticed anecdotal evidence of white men appearing to be more forgiving of the female form unlike asian men geared to snapping up a bride who is fair and slim and tall (often by their mothers) no matter if her face looks like the back end of a bus and has no personality.

    I almost give up but then if I don’t champion the cause of everyone celebrating the beauty then we seek to compound the problem of “she’s not going to turn up to the biggest day of her life risking hearing the whisper of some wanky aunt muttering: the bride looks too dark.”

    I am just lucky that my fair and green eyed grandmother who had my dark and beautiful mother was wise enough despite being illiterate to instill confidence in my mother and tell her everyday what a beautiful person she was. And I am lucky that my fair father loved my mother for who she is and particularly for her gorgeous skin. If said illiterate grandmother has changed the thinking process for my mother and consequently my brothers and sisters then a poxy magazine can do it too.

    Black don’t crack. Nuff said.

  4. Don — on 27th December, 2010 at 3:18 pm  

    Kismet,

    Damn, you do tend to sound a bit defensive whenever this topic crops up.

    And 40 grand as an average price for an ‘asian’ wedding? I suspect that’s a limited demographic you are looking at.

  5. Patrick — on 27th December, 2010 at 3:41 pm  

    Couple of Observations. As a photographer the Aishwariya Rai Elle Magazine Cover was.
    A. Shot using high key lighting that is designed to bleach the highlights.
    B. The Image has also been desaturated.

  6. Patrick — on 27th December, 2010 at 3:43 pm  

    You will also note that it has a blue bias to the colour palette.

  7. Eshaan Akbar — on 27th December, 2010 at 3:57 pm  

    Kismet,

    I think it’s a little short-sighted of you to suggest that girls whiten their skins for weddings simply because their daddy spent £40k on their wedding.

    Surely, they’d rather spend that money on some permanent skin pigment alteration?

  8. joanne — on 27th December, 2010 at 5:54 pm  

    And what about the implications of this skin whitening mularkey for the children born to women who whiteten? Obviously,her assertions that she loves and finds her children equally beautiful are going to ring a tad bit hollow.

    The aunty-jee contingent, or at least some of them, care little about skin tone and are simply looking to find something on which to hang their own envy and perceived inadequacies-you can never plaese them.

    Appeasing people only means they look ever harder for some other “failing” and means perpetutaing the myth, on to the next generation, that white skin is more prized than darker skin tones.

  9. joanne — on 27th December, 2010 at 5:55 pm  

    @Don,

    “you do tend to sound a bit defensive whenever this topic crops up”

    I agree.

  10. Kismet Hardy — on 27th December, 2010 at 11:35 pm  

    Don and Joanne, I do, and I’ll tell you why. For the past 15 years it’s been my bread and butter and passion to promote Asian culture. I’ve been doing my bit writing about and giving platforms to asians across the board that no one else would have given exposure to and damn proud I am too. But if I had a brick for every time some media outlet wants me to get into a debate about this issue I’d have enough bricks to build a wall to bang my head against. There’s no debate. Many asians like shopping, staying slim and prefer fairer skin. Some of them buy my magazine. Many Asians hate that sort of stuff. They don’t buy my magazine.

    You’ll forgive me guys but I’ve had to expand on this so many times I’ve got to the stage where I have to keep it black and white: if you don’t like it, good for you. Don’t judge the ones who do.

    Right, I’m off to whiten my dark balls the only way I know how

  11. KJB — on 28th December, 2010 at 12:52 am  

    Methinks Kismet doth protest too much.

    For the past 15 years it’s been my bread and butter and passion to promote Asian culture.

    Oh, please… Asiana is hardly reflective of ‘Asian culture’, it caters to the very upwardly mobile. At the risk of sounding a bit Dalbir, the middle-classes become in many cases more backwards than the ‘lowers,’ as in the instance of female foeticide, for example. Pre-independence, the elites were considerably more self-hating than many other Indians, particularly as they’d had more exposure to the British, as Gandhi demonstrated in Hind Swaraj. I don’t see why that would be massively different now. I think it’s certainly applicable to diasporan Asians as well – the audience for your magazine – who, it’s been frequently recognised, are often more backwards than people in India…

    I’ve got to the stage where I have to keep it black and white: if you don’t like it, good for you. Don’t judge the ones who do.

    Oh no, that old libertarian chestnut would be totally acceptable were it not for the fact that as I said in the previous thread, fairness is often pretty much forced on women because they feel like they won’t get married otherwise, and stops babies from being adopted. In the UK it might be a simple case of ‘whatever floats your boat,’ and indeed those creams are illegal here. In India, however, I don’t think this argument holds up.

  12. joanne — on 28th December, 2010 at 1:19 am  

    Good clip exposing the very real dangers posed by widely available (although illegal) skin whitenin products.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4-22HfgZI4

  13. Laban — on 28th December, 2010 at 11:32 am  

    I’m sure I’ve posted this before, but the anthropologist Peter Frost, in ‘Fair Women, Dark Men’, pointed out that paleness in women has been prized for centuries, even in cultures with little Western exposure such as medieval Japan – or ancient Israel.

    “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.”

    Why ? Maybe because women do tend to have lighter skin than men, due to subcutaneous fat.

    Frost notes that a preference for paler women will have the effect of lightening the upper classes in any society – as they tend to get the women considered most attractive.

    “Since higher-ranking men marry the more attractive women, the upper classes tend to lighten in color with each passing generation, as in India.”

    By contrast paleness in males is not prized – “tall, dark and handsome” is required. Aryan blonde males like Rutger Hauer or Max von Sydow tend to play bad guys. Note the stick Julian Assange is getting for his looks – remarks to the effect that he looks like a classic movie villain who should have a white cat on his lap. In movie casting, the love interest woman is nearly always lighter than the love interest man.

  14. Laban — on 28th December, 2010 at 12:06 pm  

    Link to Peter Frost’s site.

    Graph of skin relectivity (i.e. lightness) vs age for men and women in India and Spain, showing that females in both countries have on average lighter skin than the males. It appears that lightness is associated with femininity both in fact and in culture.

    Not that this means women should damage their skin with creams. I have a vague memory that such products were also sold in the UK in Victorian times, when many women worked in the fields and pale skin was associated with ‘a lady’ who didn’t have to work.

    More Victorian skin lightening – featuring white lead and arsenic !

  15. joanne — on 28th December, 2010 at 6:31 pm  

    Thanks, Laban.
    Interesting Stuff.

  16. fugstar — on 31st December, 2010 at 8:21 pm  

    they have this crap for boys now. ew

  17. Sabir — on 2nd January, 2011 at 3:54 am  

    Many Bengalis are very racist. An example is Faisal Gazi who allows shocking racism on his Spittoon blog against particularly Arabs ( he has a commentator with the racist name “Abu Wannabee Arab”)

  18. Nasir — on 19th January, 2011 at 1:55 pm  

    The google ad displayed after the article is for skin whitening with an Indian man’s before and after shot is both ironic and funny!

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