I just returned from the Baltics and Finland, where the sun is shining as strongly as it is here. The solar worship in these countries puts even British sunbathers to shame – the girls and guys can’t get enough of it. They must have a melanoma incidence to be truly proud of.
I would hazard a guess that the whiter a country, the more a tan is valued. I’m sure some smart Alec will name an exception, but in a country like Estonia, despite only seeing one other non-white person, everyone was my colour.
Yet far from nordic blondes, in the Middle East, Africa and across Asia, women have a very different ideal of beauty. It’s something we’ve discussed a few times before on PP, but skin lightening continues to be huge business, which shows no signs of flagging – indeed, quite the opposite.
Due to the immense scale of the international demand for skin lightening products, it’s a difficult topic to approach in a humble blog post. One could examine the phenomenon area by area.
Asia, chiefly India and China, represent the biggest markets for skin lightening companies. In both countries the belief that fairness equates to beauty is rife and moreover, the number of people (women) with disposable incomes is booming. Cast your mind back to 2003. An advert on Indian TV shows a depressed father, tired of rubbing his last two pennies together. He has no son to provide for him, just a dark-skinned daughter whose meagre salary is not enough. The implication is clear. Because his daughter is dark, she has no man, a crap job and an impoverished pops.
You’ve obviously guessed the ending, but this advert for Fair & Lovely, the most popular skin lightening cream in India, rightly caused an uproar which went as far as parliament. The advert is not only openly racist, it is also sexist and re-enforces the belief that women are commodities that need to be sold or utilised in some way. It was a deeply offensive advert and was pulled from Indian TV soon afterwards.
To make matters worse, in the very same month Hindustan Lever, makers of Fair & Lovely, withdrew yet another advert for the cream. In the second commercial, two girls are having a bit of boy talk in the bedroom. One’s happy, fair and has a hunky boyfriend. The other is sad, dark and single.
But of course countless other adverts remained.
The idolisation of fair skin is not at all new. A brief wikipedia page on skin whitening suggests that in Asia, white or pale skin was traditionally associated with royalty or aristocracy. Rich women stayed indoors playing bridge (or equivalent) whilst the poor toiled under the sun. We are all familiar with the Japanese female ideal of a white-faced geisha.
I recall an interesting Radio 4 documentary which interviewed a Delhi beautician who cited the Kama Sutra as an early example where fair skin was mentioned as desirable (to be fair, what it says is the skin should be clear and blemish-free).
A year or so ago, I wrote an article for my newspaper which sought to examine how valuable an MBA and an MBBS are when looking for a bride and signed up to a matrimonial site under different guises (I signed up for the article, FOR THE ARTICLE).
It struck me that it is an odd idiosyncrasy of Asian matrimonial services that they ask you to specify your skin tone. Is this not the most clandestine form of racism? It’s worse than simply asking your race, it’s asking “how black are you?” You know, to this day, I have no idea what a ‘wheatish complexion’ is.
Women’s groups in India have been vocal in their disdain for the industry’s practices. Whilst acknowledging that a woman should be free to do as she pleases with her own face, the chief objection of activists like Brinda Karat (All India Democratic Women’s Association, who challenged the Fair & Lovely ads) is the way women are portrayed in advertising.
Manufacturers like Hindustan Lever (a subsidiary of British Unilever) are not prepared to back down easily – in fact it took a year before they listened to the AIDWA. Fair & Lovely is sold in over 40 countries and is a huge earner for the company. In India alone, skin lightening products account for about 60% of the skincare market and it is domestically valued at about $200 million p.a.. About 37% of the global skin lightening market is accounted for by the Asia-Pacific region.
Indian beauticians and cosmetics-makers are quick to point out that Bollywood, the effective yardstick of Indian beauty, is inclusive of more ‘dark’ actresses these days. Yet the names they drop, such as Bipasha Basu or Nandita Das, aren’t really THAT dark at all. And as Sunny’s previous post demonstrates, the equation of black with ugly is widespread in the Indian film industry.
Hindustan Lever have at least guaranteed that their products contain none of the commonly identified damaging constituents such as mercury or hydroquinone (banned for non-medical use in many countries – hydroquinone is effective against spots of hyperpigmentation).
But not all creams can boast the same claim, as the cheaper end of the market demonstrates. Despite Hindustan Lever’s assurances that their products contain papaya juice and tomato (those renowned whitening agents) their prices are so prohibitive that women often go for a risky alternative.
This is the second major objection to skin lightening products; that many are patently harmful. With this, we turn to Africa.
In many ways, Africa represents the situation in Asia a few years ago. Money is slowly creeping in, but many women and girls have precious little to spend on beauty products. Yet social pressure, made worse by adverts such as the ones mentioned above, coerce these women to try whatever they can afford to look ‘nicer’. The regulatory bodies in countries such as Kenya and Nigeria are slack and dangerous products are easily available.
Whilst purely anecdotal, most of the ‘horror stories’ related to skin lightening I hear are from Africa. From mild burns to life-threatening internal injuries, the adverse effects can be far more serious than just a rash. Prolonged use of hydroquinone has caused renal failure and severe scarring.
A belief common to all the countries where skin lightening products enjoy popularity is that boys prefer fair girls. As I’m sure we’ll all agree, one of the main motivational factors for anything in life is to attract the opposite sex. Hence, the clientele requesting skin-lightening treatments at beauty salons is getting younger and younger.
The Afro-Caribbean communities around the world are just as keen on fair skin as those in Africa. British black and Asian women are almost single-handedly responsible for lightening procedures being offered in a multitude of salons around the country. The black British newspaper The Voice articulately condemns the industry:
It is a big multibillion-pound sector supported by mainly poor blacks with huge self-image problems.
A casual walk through almost any black community will find bleached-faced individuals branded by creams and lotions, marking their acceptance into the world of lighter complexion and seemingly endless possibilities. [Link]
It is not hard to see parallels between black and Asian mentalities. Both communities find beauty in the lighter-skinned members of their community, be it Halle Berry and BeyoncÃ© or Aishwariya and Priyanka Chopra. The beauty industry publications catering to both black and Asian women in the UK feature adverts for skin lightening.
The Middle East
The Middle East is not an easy region about which to generalise, but in countries like Lebanon, Dubai, Jordan and Iran, women spend serious amounts of money on their looks. From an outsider’s perspective, the skin lightening situation bears more resemblance to the current state of affairs in Africa, as opposed to Asia. Those controversial adverts (albeit now with an unhappy Arab girl) have not been banned – just like in Africa â€“ and dangerous products are freely available on the market.
Whether imagined or not, the undertones to the beliefs held by the women who whiten are worrying. Is the reason that dark-skinned people consider fair skin to be attractive because they are unhappy with their race?
That wiki page clearly alleges that the reason South American and African women value fairness is to emulate their former European masters. Of course the same could be said of Indians, but China is not a former European colony.
The ethnic press in various countries believes that skin lightening is indicative of â€˜race transformationâ€™. We all know Michael Jackson altered his face to look less black and more white and some believe skin lightening is part of the same mentality.
Personally I tend to buy the rich â€“ indoors; poor â€“ outdoors theory that associates fair skin with social standing. But then, why would a British Asian, born and raised here, prefer a light-skinned girl? The answer may lie in our genes.
There are some tentative biological explanations, if you are interested.
Within a racial group, women are fairest (and most symmetrical) after puberty and before the first pregnancy. As women age and have babies, they get darker right up until the menopause. Fertility is also a factor. Obviously women closer to the menopause are less fertile than young women, but skin colour may reflect fertility.
Considering one racial group, the genes coding for skin colour are the same. The expression differs from person to person (an example of this is that men are darker than women in any given ethnic group â€“ they have the same genes, but they are expressed in a different manner). One of the hormones responsible for melanocyte expression is derived from the same pre-cursor as the chemical which controls androgen production, that is, testosterone and oestrogen.
The ratio of oestrogen:testosterone is an important determinant of fecundity and hence darker skin (within one ethnic group) may represent lower fertility.
Thus, if a man selects only fair girls, he is statistically increasing his chances of finding a young and fertile mate.
Other more fanciful theories include fair skin showing the signs of ill health more readily. A prospective male would be able to see disease/parasites more easily on a fairer skinned mate and would therefore better know what genes he would be getting.
Men join the party
I clean forgot about the Fair and Handsome range when writing this piece for the first time (thanks Vikrant). Fair and Handsome was launched last year as a response to the growing number of men in India who are concerned about their appearance. Mirroring the West, where advertising for men’s grooming products has increased ten fold, Emami Industries considered the number of ‘metrosexual’ men more than sufficient to launch the male version. Now, where have we heard this before:
The advert for the male cream shows a dark-skinned college boy relegated to the back seat and ignored by the girls until he uses the product. Soon enough, his complexion lightens and girls flock to him like moths to a flame. [Link]
The cream is proving very successful, with fears that men would be too shy to buy proving unfounded.
All’s fair in love and makeup
There have been attempts at rectifying the situation. Large cosmetics companies like Lâ€™Oreal and Max Factor have been attempting to muscle in on the market for darker skin, which is also booming. Makers such as Bobbi Brown and Ruby and Millie specifically cater for darker skin and Bobbi Brown herself has voiced criticism of the skin lightening industry. Whilst there are those who insist dark skin is as beautiful as light, the message is slow to percolate down to public opinion.
Being unhappy in oneâ€™s own skin must be horrible. But worldwide, billions of men and women feel the grass is always greener. Whites want to get darker and blacks want to get lighter. Itâ€™s just not fair.
People say, yo Humpty now that your records is sellin
Ain’t it about time for you to be bailin out
Of the race and community you come from
Yo, your face has gotta change, Hump!
Ice Cube says you’re making more than Donald Trump
So yo, go on and get your nose fixed, Hump
Listen, now the black girl wants to get her lip tucked
She says Doc, I want my slim hips so I’m a slim figure
The white girl says my hips are not big enough
And yo, Doc, inject the collagen and make my lips bigger
All of these so-called celebrities
Sellin millions of records and claimin no responsibilities
A young girl sees you on a TV show
She’s only six, says “Mama, I don’t like my nose!”
Why’d you have to go and mess up the child’s head
So you can get another gold waterbed?!
You fakehaircontactwearinliposuction carnival exhibit
Listen to my rhyme, you need to hear it
Uh, and you don’t stop, check it
I smell the message from the TV
Does my Humpty nose deceive me?
Smells like the blacker the wacker
Polly wants to be a cracker, if you let her
But see for me, the bigger the nose the better
They say the lighter the righter
Oh yeah?! Well, that’s tough
Sometimes I feel I’m not black enough
I’m high yellow, my nose is brown to perfection
And if I was to change it’d be further in that direction
So catch me on the beach, I’ll be gettin a tan
Make sure there’s no mistake that
Humpty-Hump is from the motherland
Layin in the sun, string bikini
Between the buns of two cuties
Still mackin, there’ll be no nose job
- Excerpt from Digital Undergroundâ€™s No Nose Job
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Filed in: Culture,The World