Asian countries are obsessed with fair skin. Growing up as a “darker skin girl” was a character building exercise for a lot of us girls. Overtly or covertly the message was our skin colour isn’t ideal. From a young age, girls are told to stay out of sun, instructed to avoid drinking tea or coffee because “it makes your skin darker”, taught how to use face masks with lightening properties. The notion of beauty is heavily weighted in favour of lighter skin, and “fairness creams” like the popular Fair&Lovely are a multimillionaire dollar business. Commercials for fairness creams are very similar to the ones for washing powder: Take something dark, use product, make it white and brighter. The model’s lighter skin color results in beaming smiles, job offers, acceptance in the society and happy endings all around.
Whitening, lightening and brightening skincare are marketed heavily in the areas of the world where people naturally have black or dark skin. White skin is advertised to be more beautiful than any other skin colour. Life success, love, career and happiness for Asian and Middle Eastern women is tied to being fair skinned. Not only in other countries but even in the UK dozens of women actually die from toxic poisoning after applying some black-market skin bleaching products containing chemicals. It’s easy to understand why women of colour would want to bleach their perfectly healthy skin. We grow up amidst aggressive stereotypes that beautiful skin is fair and smooth, nothing else would do. Till this day, Disney princesses and dolls that girls are encouraged to play with, are predominantly white, and so are most romantic heroines in young adult films and books.
Colourism and the desirability of “fairness” is drilled into young girls! Older women especially Aunties from outside as well as from your own family would also make unsolicited comments about our complexion, veiled as genuine concern for you and your future. In South Asia, the beauty standard is further perpetuated by pop culture and a booming cosmetic industry. Actors with glowing, pale complexions are the stars of Bollywood movies while their dark-skinned counterparts play poor characters. Some dating apps even include skin tone filters. The subject of skin color and, subsequently, social status in South Asian culture is incredibly complex. While people with darker skin tones are subjected to harsh discrimination and prejudice, fairness is revered and associated with beauty, wealth and power. This cultural bias is engrained from an early age, with women bearing more of the societal pressure to have lighter skin. If you’re a woman, darker skin can be a deal-breaker for families seeking the perfect wife for their son. For men, fair skin is seen as a bonus but not as much of a requirement.
In the last few years the ethics of this marketing has come into question. More and more people start showing concern about the effect white beauty marketing has on women of colour; imposing unrealistic beauty standards has a generally negative effect on people’s wellbeing, self-esteem and general happiness. This is a questionable area of aesthetic and cosmetology medicine. The concept of perfect fair and smooth skin is a remnant of last century’s culture where the looks of a rich white lady, whose skin knows no sun and hands no hard work, were an ideal to strive for.
Today skin bleaching leads to a scary number of harmful side effects, and the risk is higher for people with dark skin due to its characteristics. Most methods damage the skin in the process, decrease the skin’s barrier function, lead to increased sensitivity and can even trigger skin disease. Beauty is widely diverse and every single shade of skin is pretty when it’s healthy. It’s great that this point of view is becoming more popular these days, ‘cause frankly it’s been a bit lonely here.