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Skin-whitening creams reveal dark side of beauty

Published Feb 12, 2014 07:26am


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The Dark is Beautiful campaign by Women of Worth, an Indian NGO.
The Dark is Beautiful campaign by Women of Worth, an Indian NGO.

SKIN-whitening cosmetics are a multi-billion dollar industry pushing the idea that beauty equates with white skin and that lightening dark skin is both achievable and preferable.

The cosmetics industry has traditionally relied on convincing people that they are incomplete without a particular product. Yet, unlike make-up or fake tan, skin-whitening creams base beauty on a racial hierarchy, fuelling intolerance and causing serious social harm.

In a country such as India, the dominance of fair skin has both a colonial and a caste legacy and the global narrative is that those at the top of society have fair skin. With issues such as employment and relationships often resting on skin tone, people invest in skin-whitening creams in the hope of a better existence. Capitalising on this inequality, hundreds of products are peddled by corporations, among them armpit whitener, genital whitener and fairness baby oil.

In countries such as India and Thailand it is difficult to find beauty products that do not claim to have lightening or whitening properties, and a recently launched celebrity backed product in Nigeria sold out within 24 hours. Many global corporations are involved in this market, such as Unilever, which sells Fair and Lovely, Pond’s White Beauty and the Vaseline and Dove whitening ranges.

Challenging this climate of discrimination is Women of Worth, an Indian non-governmental organisation (NGO) called that has founded the Dark is Beautiful campaign. The campaign’s director, Kavitha Emmanuel, says the project resulted from work with children and young people. “The issue of skin colour kept coming up. We saw how it makes young people — especially young girls — feel as if they’re not good enough.

“Skin colour bias affects people psychologically. It affects how a child performs in school because their confidence level goes down: they feel they are not good enough. And when it comes to marriage, we again find skin colour plays such a vital role. We thought, ‘Why are we keeping quiet about this? We should talk about this and see how people respond.’”

In January, Emmanuel delivered a petition of 30,000 signatures to cosmetics company Emami, calling on them to withdraw a particularly discriminatory advert for Fair and Handsome. She recalls the words of Emami’s managing director: “There is a need in our society for fairness creams, so we are meeting that need.” He refused to withdraw the ad. Undeterred, Dark is Beautiful is lobbying the Advertising Council of India to legislate against adverts that discriminate against dark skin.

Skin colour, along with hair and eye colour, is genetically determined by the amount of melanin found in the top layers of skin. Its varied presence — which accounts for different skin colours — is linked to a population’s historic levels of sun exposure. Yet skin-whitening products promising to be anti-melanin are now on sale, with worrying consequences. Dr Bav Shergill, consultant dermatologist and trustee of the British Skin Foundation, explains: “Melanin is produced by melanocytes to protect the DNA of our skin from sun damage. Excessively reducing this concentration of melanin may increase the risk of skin cancers.”

Other creams have been found to contain dangerous chemicals, such as hydroquinone and mercury. The British Skin Foundation advises that hydroquinone can cause intense irritation and uneven bleaching of the skin, and mercury can cause increased pigmentation and severe itchy rashes. Both these chemicals are banned in the EU though not elsewhere, and batches of under-the-counter creams are routinely confiscated by the UK authorities.

This does not mean that corporations such as Unilever are fulfilling a public health role. Pots of creams cannot turn billions of people white; nor is it responsible for pharmaceutical companies to pretend to offer the means to carry out such an appalling project. Corporations are capitalising on racial inequality and deepening a sense of self-hate in people while peddling products that are either ineffectual or dangerous.

Dove’s “real women” campaign — which aimed to challenge beauty stereotypes — increased sales by 700 per cent, yet skin colour has yet to be treated in the same fashion. For campaigners like Emmanuel, skin whitening is a public health crisis — both physical and emotional — fuelled by corporations making huge profits.

“I would say we need to change attitudes, and it’s going to take years to do that,” says Emmanuel. “That is why our campaign has a celebratory attitude: in a country with so many different shades, we should celebrate every single shade.” It’s a message that flies in the face of corporations making billions from selling the idea that only white is beautiful.

Unilever declined to comment.

—By arrangement with the Guardian


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Comments (21) Closed

S. Yaser Raza Feb 12, 2014 04:45pm

Excellent post and initiative.

Though my, my wife and my daughter's skin tone is white but seriously I consider Pakistani and Indian dark tone people much prettier than people with white tone. We must support such initiatives to eliminate at least one evil from our society.

Hats off to TANSY HOSKINS, Kavitha Emmanuel and all the "Dark is Beautiful"team.

sophie Feb 12, 2014 07:11pm

This guy had to mention his wife and daughter are white, I'm sure he had nothing do with this selection of the whitest when picking her for his wife. HaHa.

imranahmed Feb 12, 2014 09:59pm

great work, face this dilema and we hope one day we may undo this injustice in our society.

Prapur Feb 12, 2014 11:58pm

Lord Krishna & Ram were not fair still millions worship him, same is with dark skin women are pretty in literature of many languages. The issue is based on perception. In Europe and USA people like to get tan so that they become lesser white or Wheaties & invite skin cancer too with skin protecting chemicals. This is not problem of India alone. It exists every where. The only thing is every scarcity has opposite demand. White skin likes tan or darker one and vice verse. Self confidence and ability to achieve something or do better is desirable than comparing one's attribute. However some day competing in learning could be a problems to some and as money, & mussel power is misused intelligence too. There are always two sides of coin so better develop once confidence. You can't stop movies & entertainment industries survive because people do watch them. USA has both fair & dark luminaries & are well respected.

asdfsdf Feb 13, 2014 12:47am

@S. Yaser Raza: WHy didn't you marry a dark person? Hypocrisy much?

Nasir Khan Feb 13, 2014 01:25am

@S. Yaser Raza: If you are so non discriminate than you would not have mention your family color in the first sentence ;)

Nasser Feb 13, 2014 02:35am

Excellent article! Dark skin is sexy and more appealing to a lot of people, myself included. But it is a personal choice. However, the sufering that a "wrong" skin colour can cause is most shameful and distressing. The best way to fight is that you feel good about yourself even if many may find your skin colour not attractive. You are what you are and confidence comes from within. While it may be easier said than done, this is what life teaches. And anyway, would I care about how someone feels about my skin colour, my height, my physique, etc? No! The other way to fight back is what Women of Worth are doing; ie educating the public, but more importantly, taking the fight to these cosmetic companies who are plying the public with products which are actually very harmful and their effectiveness very questionable. Women for Worth must take up a public forum, especially in this age of social media and blogs. Privately, law suits can also be brought against such companies too.

Ghazanfar Feb 13, 2014 06:27am

@S. Yaser Raza:

Many Pakistanis have a very different skin tone than indians. Skin whitening industry can never penetrate Pakistani society to the same depth because half of Pakistan is quite fair. In case of india, constant occupation by muslims invaders and british at last have lead to a deep inferiority complex unfortunatey.

ssf Feb 13, 2014 09:20am

The beauty can be found in all colors and shades, black, white, brown and inbetween. But it will take many genarations for India to treat darker indians as pretty or give them the equal tratment as fair Indians because of the cast system which basically was based on color (verna). Show me one famous dark actress or actor of bollywood, eventhough majority of Indian poplation is dark or brown.

Dharm Feb 13, 2014 10:09am

Excellent effort by NGO. It will definitely will go a long way. Hats off to the team.

Saad Feb 13, 2014 10:17am

@S. Yaser Raza: Yaser 'White' sahab! How does your skin tone help this argument? This sounds like a 'ooh i'm white but lets support these black people in their struggle?'

deendayal lulla Feb 13, 2014 02:38pm

The celebrities endorsing such products should also be made responsible. In fact,recently,a consumer court has given a ruling that a celebrity endorsing a product ,can be made liable for damages. One hopes that somebody files a case against a celebrity,claiming damages.

Wrest Corp Feb 13, 2014 03:01pm

When God was developing this mankind, he must have asked people which color tone do you want, White or Black. People like me & others would have jumped and said Black (iwhich most people like)

Had India, under the Mughal Rule (when we were richest), ruled & flourished in the very recent past, I am sure these companies would be selling creams to darken your skin and Black color would have been in fashion.

For companies, blackening or whitening cream they just mean business, and for innocent people they just get deceived & divided by ulterior motives!

Anil Nair Feb 13, 2014 05:58pm

Nandita Das is gorgeous and Intelligent. And I find her skin tone absolutely beautiful. Indians are who think 'dark skin' is ugly needs to get a grip


Gautham Feb 13, 2014 06:32pm

I used to argue against these fairness creams with friends - that was almost 15 year ago, and wondered why no one is starting a mass movement against this humiliation of young girls' psyche. I believe marketing cosmetics as reducing sun tan is acceptable but the ads cross the line and depict your life and career depend on looking fair complexioned. They humiliate women ( and definitely men) with darker skin tones, telling them to go and get fair looking.

Parvez Feb 13, 2014 10:45pm

People who make this whitening cream are simply playing on a human nature bias that has been coming through from very early times. They are in the business of making there are people in the business of making money by producing guns that kill people. Its not right but then whats right in the world today.

sirvisam Feb 14, 2014 08:24am

@ssf: bipasha basu, shabana azmi, kajol, priyanka chopra

Sanjay Feb 14, 2014 09:36am

@ssf: The reigning super stars Shah Rukh, Kajol and before them Amitabh, Rekha all have dark color. Look beyond their movie makeup.

Wrest Corp Feb 14, 2014 10:24am

@ssf: List of dark Bollywood actors.

1) Kajol 2) Ajay Devgan 3) Rajnikanth 4) Johny Lever

Dark Businessman

1) LN Mittal 2) Ambani

and many more.......

Khanm Feb 15, 2014 11:34am

Beauty has nothing to do with color of the skin. Beauty has a lot to do with character. Unfortunately in this day and age we run after beauty only.

asfi Feb 15, 2014 12:49pm

Probably we the people of subcontinent are quite impressed from the fair skin otherwise the most beautiful people in India and Pakistan are those with dark skin.