Young Canadian spoken-word poet-activist Jathusha Mahenthirarajan recently responded to the Fair & Lovely skin lightening advertising campaign.
She has one quotation posted with her video.
"The only thing that should be separated by colour is laundry" - Anon.”
Fair & Lovely
Fair & Lovely is a skin-lightening cosmetic product of Hindustan Unilever introduced to the market in India in 1975. Fair & Lovely is available in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other parts of Asia and is also exported to other parts of the world such as the West, where they are sold in Asian supermarkets.
Unilever patented the brand Fair & Lovely in 1971 after the patenting of niacinamide, a melanin suppressor, which is the cream's main active ingredient. As of 2012 the brand occupied 80% of the fairness cream market in India, and is one of Hindustan Unilever's most successful cosmetics lines.
The target consumer profile for Fair & Lovely is the 18 and above age group, and the bulk of the users are in the age 21-35 category, though there is evidence that girls as young as 12-14 also use the cream. Marketing for the product in all countries implies whiter skin equates to beauty and self-confidence. Hindustan Unilever Limited research claims that “90 percent of Indian women want to use whiteners because it is aspirational, like losing weight. A fair skin is like education, regarded as a social and economic step up." Following controversy, including a television advertisement in which the actor Saif Ali Khan prefers the fair-skinned Neha Dhupia over darker-skinned Priyanka Chopra.
Al Jazeera did this in-depth piece on “fairness” in India.
There is now a Dark is Beautiful campaign that has been launched via social media, including “Dark on Fleek” on Twitter.
Every social phenomenon becomes the target of satire and humor. This short film spoofs Fair & Lovely, with “Fair and Lowly.”
This is not just an issue in India. Other parts of Asia show similar disdain and disgust for darkness.
CNN featured a story titled, “Thai beauty ad: 'Just being white, you will win’”
A new Thai beauty ad claiming white skin is the key to success has unleashed a storm of criticism in Thailand, especially online, where people complain the ad perpetuates damaging, racist ideas. "Just being white, you will win," says Cris Horwang, a smiling pale-skinned actress, in the 50-second spot by Seoul Secret, a Thai beauty company.Without the advertised pill, "the whiteness I have invested in, will just vanish," she warns.
On screen, the actress' expression turns despondent as her skin is digitally altered to turn black. Horwang promises that the product, called Snowz, "will help you not to return to being dark." "Eternally white, I am confident," she adds.
On Friday evening, Seoul Secret pulled the video from its online platforms and issued a statement
. "(We) would like to apologize for the mistake and claim full responsibility for this incident. Our company did not have any intention to convey discriminatory or racist messages," it said. "What we intended to convey was that self-improvement in terms of personality, appearance, skills, and professionality (sic) is crucial."
Ah! The classic “no-pology” strikes again. The good news is that there was an outcry.
Before we continue our global journey tracking the bleach binge, let us examine the science of skin color—and for that we can turn to the expertise of Dr. Nina Jablonski, Evan Pugh University Professor of Anthropology at Penn State, whose research interests include:
Evolution of human skin and skin pigmentation: Study of the origin, evolution, and consequences of a functionally naked and pigmented integument in humans, drawing upon anatomical, physiological, paleontological, epidemiological, and environmental data.
She is the author of Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color.
Living Color is the first book to investigate the social history of skin color from prehistory to the present, showing how our body’s most visible trait influences our social interactions in profound and complex ways. In a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, Nina G. Jablonski begins with the biology and evolution of skin pigmentation, explaining how skin color changed as humans moved around the globe. She explores the relationship between melanin pigment and sunlight, and examines the consequences of rapid migrations, vacations, and other lifestyle choices that can create mismatches between our skin color and our environment. Richly illustrated, this book explains why skin color has come to be a biological trait with great social meaning— a product of evolution perceived by culture. It considers how we form impressions of others, how we create and use stereotypes, how negative stereotypes about dark skin developed and have played out through history—including being a basis for the transatlantic slave trade. Offering examples of how attitudes about skin color differ in the U.S., Brazil, India, and South Africa, Jablonski suggests that a knowledge of the evolution and social importance of skin color can help eliminate color-based discrimination and racism.
Nina Jablonski says that differing skin colors are simply our bodies' adaptation to varied climates and levels of UV exposure. Charles Darwin disagreed with this theory, but she explains, that's because he did not have access to NASA.
From the transcript:
“So we have, in skin pigmentation, one of these wonderful products of evolution that still has consequences for us today. And the social consequences, as we know, are incredibly profound. We live in a world where we have lightly and darkly pigmented people living next to one another, but often brought into proximity initially as a result of very invidious social interactions. So how can we overcome this? How can we begin to understand it? Evolution helps us.”
When we hear the term “globalization,” rarely do we think of the spread of both images of beauty and the beauty industry as big business. Yet the pervasive encroachment of Western beauty standards as normative is now a major topic of study.
The book is an interdisciplinary text that uses beauty to explore topics of gender, race, class, colorism, nation, bodies, multiculturalism, transnationalism, and intersectionality. Integrating materials from a wide range of cultural and geo-political contexts, it coalesces with initiatives to produce more internationally relevant curricula in fields such as sociology, as well as cultural, women's/gender, media, and globalization studies.
Author Meeta Rani Jha:
is a feminist sociologist and an anti-racist activist. She is a scholar-in-residence at Beatrice Bain Research Group (BBRG) in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley, US. She has taught sociology, globalization, transnational feminist cultural studies, critical race, ethnicity, and media studies at a number of universities in the San Francisco Bay area (currently at the University of San Francisco, US) and in London. For a long time she was a community organizer on issues of racial discrimination, low pay, migration, domestic violence, and homeworking in the UK.
In you have never seen this film, I suggest you do. Though not about skin color and whiteness specifically, it does have a major segment that examines that issue (not reflected in the following trailer).
That content in the film can be found in the online transcript
[Montage of skin whitening ads]
Black & White
: Mumbai: India's biggest city, and the country's commercial and entertainment capital. Strolling through its streets, it's hard to miss the ubiquitous messages advertising skin whitening products. White Beauty; Fair & Lovely; Perfect White. The market for fairness creams has had an explosive growth since the 1970s. But the desire to have light skin has deeper roots.
: Most Indians still have internalized racism, where the western body image is definitely more superior, because remember India is an ex-‐colony of the British, where we've always had this fascination for the white man or the white woman and how she looks. So there is,
I think, one of those trends happening, where we are trying to embody this westernized, modernized image, because that's where power comes from.Some say“fair.” It's all relative. North Indian women are lighter-‐skinned than South Indian women, for the most part. But everybody is trying to aim at the light skin, so the North Indian woman, who's already got a lighter skin, is aiming at being as light as the British colonial woman or the American woman that she sees on TV or a white model. It's unattainable! That's when you go out and seek products that are extremely dangerous because there's no way that you can, sort of change the color of your skin. That's what you're born with. Why don't we just accept that brown is beautiful or black is beautiful?
: The market for skin-‐whitening creams is so lucrative that there are about 50 new products introduced in the Asia-‐Pacific region every year.
[in clip]: Go sleeveless on him with fairer, whiter underarms.
: Pharmaceutical company MidasCare has recently caused an uproar with its skin-‐whitening 'intimate wash,' promising to make women's genitals whiter. The possibilities are endless for making Indian women insecure about their skin tone. And nowadays, there is a new target.
: So you have for instance, you know, cream that was targeting women for the longest time, called Fair and Lovely. There's a counterpart for the men now. It's called Fair and Handsome, and it's Emami that launched it in 2005. With exactly the same set of reasoning is that alright, you have it all, you're a male, um, so vis‐a-‐vis the women, you already have the power, but vis-‐a-‐vis the white man, you're probably still not as well off, so if you want to go that notch up into the power hierarchy, being fair might help. And so,whether it's for a job or whether it's for matchmaking or whether it's for appearing as more westernized, modernized, sometimes what the west calls “civilized,”it helps to be whiter.
: We can also find skin-‐whitening messages in the most unexpected places.
Paola Audrey Ndengue
[in French]: The use of skin whitening creams unfortunately is really common in Africa. I mention Africa because the vast majority of women who use these creams here come from the diaspora and have been brought up in a culture where skin whitening-‐-‐we call it scraping-‐-‐is so normal it's practically banal. So here in France, I think it's unfortunately a common practice. Even though very few people talk about it. It's totally taboo. Skin whitening is so common here that authorities had to intervene. They banned the sales of products that contain 'hydroquinone,' one of the key ingredients of skin whitening creams, and that can be very dangerous. Despite this ban, all you have to do is go to the neighborhood 'La Goutte d'Or' and you will still be able to find these creams that contain hydroquinone. I think that advertising and mass media have played a role in this. Everywhere you see black women who are not 'too black,' so they can be accepted by mainstream media. The most prominent women in entertainment today are all fair skinned and have a huge influence even on black women who live abroad like here in France.
By some estimates, Nigeria is the country that uses the most skin bleach.
According to research by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Nigerians have been graded as the nation with the highest consumption of bleaching products: 77% of Nigerian women bleach, followed by Togo with 59% while South Africa with 35%; and Mali at 25%, making it the top four nations that bleach their skin.
Some years ago, products that contains hydroquinone and mercury were banned in Nigeria but somehow they found their ways back to the shelves with women using it with impunity and without border.
Al Jazeera featured the hazards in “Nigeria's dangerous skin whitening obsession.”
Skin bleaching comes with hazardous health consequences. The dangers associated with the use of toxic compounds for skin bleaching include blood cancers such as leukemia and cancers of the liver and kidneys as well as severe skin conditions. Hardcore bleachers use illegal ointments containing toxins like mercury, a metal that blocks production of melanin, which gives the skin its colour, but can also be toxic.
Ayobode Williams, a medical doctor, says the skin bleaching agents have both internal and external effects on those who use them. “Systemically it causes things like kidney failure because of the mercury in some of the products and it also causes eczema, skin pigmentation among a host of other infections,” he told Al Jazeera. Dr Williams warned that sustained use of bleaching agents could cause even cancer.
Yet few seem to pay attention to these dangers. For those who bleach, staying black is not beautiful at all.
Cameroonian-Nigerian pop star Reprudencia Sonkey is better known as “Dencia.” She markets a skin bleaching line called “Whitenacious,” and has engaged in high profile online wars with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o.
Nyong’o referenced Dencia’s products in this speech:
I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty. Black beauty. Dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: "Dear Lupita," it reads, "I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me."
My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother's every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
Britan’s Channel 4 put Dencia on the hot seat in this interview:
Skin bleaching is also very popular in Caribbean countries like the Dominican Republic (see the Sammy Sosa controversy) and Jamaica.
People around the world often try to alter their skin color, using tanning salons or dyes to darken it or other chemicals to lighten it. In the gritty slums of Jamaica, doctors say the skin lightening phenomenon has reached dangerous proportions. "I know of one woman who started to bleach her baby. She got very annoyed with me when I told her to stop immediately, and she left my office. I often wonder what became of that baby," said Neil Persadsingh, a leading Jamaican dermatologist.
Most Jamaican bleachers use over-the-counter creams, many of them knockoffs imported from West Africa. Long-term use of one of the ingredients, hydroquinone, has long been linked to a disfiguring condition called ochronosis that causes a splotchy darkening of the skin. Doctors say abuse of bleaching lotions has also left a web of stretch marks across some Jamaicans' faces. In Japan, the European Union, and Australia, hydroquinone has been removed from over-the-counter skin products and substituted with other chemicals due to concerns about health risks. In the United States, over-the-counter creams containing up to 2 per cent hydroquinone are recognised as safe and effective by the US Food and Drug Administration. A proposed ban by the FDA in 2006 fizzled.
Lightening creams are not effectively regulated in Jamaica, where even roadside vendors sell tubes and plastic bags of powders and ointments from cardboard boxes stacked along sidewalks in market districts."Many of the tubes are unlabelled as to their actual ingredients," said Dr Richard Desnoes, president of the Dermatology Association of Jamaica. Hardcore bleachers use illegal ointments smuggled into the Caribbean country that contain toxins like mercury, a metal that blocks production of melanin, which give skin its colour, but can also be toxic.
Popular Jamaican Dancehall artist Vybz Kartel has been the spark for the debate about skin whitening using “cake soap.”
Kartel has come under controversy over perceived skin whitening, or "bleaching", leading him to claim the use of "cake soap" to lighten his skin. The Blue Power Group, Jamaican manufacturer of the popular cake soap (or "blue soap"), has refuted claims it changes skin color. Kartel stated the soap used to lighten his skin was his own company brand, which he intended to release on the local market and to overseas clients.
The most recent pop-culture eruption here in the U.S. involves rap artist Lil’ Kim.
Lil’ Kim’s Lighter, Whiter Skin Is a Sad Indictment of Racism
Why has Lil’ Kim seemingly lightened her skin? Because of the absurd, but very present, social advantage for black people that comes with having lighter skin.
There was a time when Lil’ Kim represented a brand of unapologetic self-love for black women. The kind that announced that we are sexual beings without shame or fear. She reflected what it might look like to be at once a woman, black, and sexually free. Visually, her body was a site for pleasure, most importantly her own.
Sonically, her lyrics offered us permission to explore our own bodies and our own pleasure. Lil’ Kim was our champion.
I’m not sure what she’s now championing. In a series of pictures she posted on Instagram, she is virtually unrecognizable.
In an essay titled “Stop Letting Whites Off the Hook for Colorism,” Sarah Webb listed some recent studies:
In 2015, Lance Hannon published research findings on what he calls “white colorism,” indicating that regardless of education, test scores, and other demographic factors, “African Americans and Latinos deemed to have lighter skin tones are significantly more likely to be seen as intelligent by white interviewers.” He uses the following language, which includes a bit of professional jargon, but is quite significant:
“a one standard deviation increase in skin lightness roughly triples the probability of being perceived as having above average intelligence (an impact that is greater than a one standard deviation increase in education level).”
This suggests that in judging intelligence, whites are more influenced by skin tone than education level.
In 2014, five researchers published results of a study revealing the existence of a “skin tone memory bias.” All races of study participants, including white participants, remembered “educated” black men as being lighter than they actually are.
In 2014, Brittany C. Slatton published a book detailing the results of her research in which white men were invited to respond anonymously to an online survey about their views on dating black women. Slatton explains that the men who said they’re unattracted or rarely attracted to black women “root that lack of attraction in those traits defined as ‘black’: dark skin, hair texture, and facial features.” In contrast, some of the white men who are and are not attracted to black women in general “described blacks with more ‘white’ facial features and hair texture as the only attractive black woman,” thus using whiteness as the standard by which they measure the beauty of black women. Slatton quotes several of the survey respondents who say the following:
“I do find some black women attractive, but they tend to have more white physical features and are polished…. Alicia Keys comes to mind.”
“If I find a black woman attractive, it is because their hair type and facial features are more representative of the Caucasian race.”
“There are some black women who are attractive. And they aren’t full black. The only black women I find attractive are a mix of black and European, black and Latino, or black and Asian. They end up with a tan complexion, and hair that doesn’t look frizzled or like a Brillo pad.”
“The ‘blacker’ the person, the less femininity I tend to see.”
“I think black women’s features are too extreme; they are too dark, and they usually are much too large for my tastes…. The only black women I have found even marginally attractive are smaller, lighter-skinned black women… ala Beyoncé.”
As long as white skin (or lighter skin) is viewed and used as a pathway to upward mobility within a white supremacist world, and as long as standardized concepts of female beauty are the embodiment of success within a patriarchy, we will continue to be enmeshed in the web of colorism.
Comments are closed on this story.