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Feminspire | April 25, 2014

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Skin Lightening, Racial Identity & Beauty Standards: Stop the Madness!

Skin Lightening, Racial Identity & Beauty Standards: Stop the Madness!

The in-your-face marketing for skin whitening products dominates television screens in Asian countries, where many women are already often found complaining about their skin colour — even if they have just a tinge of tan. ‘Fair and Lovely’ is one of the leading skin whitening beauty brands in the South and Southeast Asian region. These adverts — and those of other companies — are planted during commercial breaks for soap operas, dramas, and shows that aims at young girls.

The advertisement typically portrays the protagonist as undesirable and insecure as she glances into a mirror, comparing herself to a more social and popular friend. Our protagonist hides in the background because of her only-slightly-tan skin, ashamed by how ‘ugly’ the she is. She is unable to show her face to people. Her popular friend later finds her looking miserable and recommends happiness in a 500 ml tube that carries an elixir for not only a new skin colour, but also an antidote to her problems and neuroses. Whoo!

And then? Transformation! Three different panels showcasing the change from her original “dark” skin colour to her skin being only slightly lighter a week after using the product, and in the last panel, bam! She is as white and beautiful as a rose petal. She also manages to get a boyfriend due to this process, and suddenly she’s, like, super social and everyone wants to be around her.

“It works! There’s a whole sperm whale in it!” the conclusion to the advert states, and off the shelf it goes!

Who knew all our racial identity problems can be solved by using such a product?

This is the current state of skin whitening adverts in a lot of societies in Asia. The above advert (sans sperm whale) is a representation of a majority of beauty adverts in Indonesian television.

The socialisation of skin whitening starts really early, sometimes even before a child is born. In some Asian cultures, certain diets are introduced during pregnancy in order to birth a child who’ll have fairer skin. This includes a lot of soy milk; in fact, the focus is on the benefit of drinking soy milk during pregnancy even at the expense of a healthy calcium level. When the child is born, some parents — mothers, mostly — go to the extent of not allowing their children out, risking their children from getting tanned (I’m one of these kids, guys!). They would rather their children glow in the dark than be even a shade darker than their natural skin tone.

This obsession doesn’t get better during teenage years. Those with darker skin are subjected to bullying and negative comments. Racial statements will be made against those who are darker, usually derogatory ones, which puts them in an ethnic group they are not. This in turn taps into a girl’s insecurities which involves questioning her identity: “I am this racial group, but people identify me as another racial group for my skin.” This bullying doesn’t just come from girls, but boys too. Take note that racial identity in a lot of Asian countries is really important. The kind of racial statements being thrown around about skin and race showcase the lack of social cohesiveness: dark skin as working class and below, lighter skin as middle class and above. If anything, the existence of this idea indicates a gross social inequality that is not only accepted but encouraged. It’s no coincidence that skin whitening products are used en masse here.

The dichotomy between light and dark skin as an indicator of social standing can be seen in a lot of Asian societies. In India, lighter skin reflects a position in the prestigious upper caste, while darker skin means you’re part of the poor or lower caste. In Indonesia and Thailand, dark skin means great exposure to the sun, which is predominantly occupied by people in the lower class, including farmers. India has banned the caste system, but if the state of the skin lightening obsession is any indication, the ban is not doing its job. The line between classes is made obvious by how skin lightening is marketed mainly to middle class and modern women: those who own television, buy magazines, and have the privilege to care about local celebrities’ lives– because those celebrities take part in the advertising of these products– and particularly those women living in city areas as adverts are sometimes found in a daily commute. “BE WHITE” is the constant message; it’s hardly ever “HAVE GOOD, MOISTURISED SKIN!” It is very troubling to see how it works as a catalyst for separation from those who are dark and work under the sun. It is particularly problematic because it doesn’t focus on the idea that those who work as farmers and fisheries, for instance, have the same value as those who have the comfort of working in an air-conditioned office because–look at them! They are dark, and dark can never be beautiful!

The effect of colonialism is still rampant, and this skin colour obsession is one them. White colonials came into a country and planted themselves as the highest in the social strata, taking up the superior governmental and social positions. But the obsession about whiteness shouldn’t be blamed on the colonials entirely– at least I don’t think so. I mean, colonials are not around now, and no one within the Asian wall is telling Asians they are inferior. But the idea of being fair and white is so deep ingrained. Even countries with a strong culture and global economic ranking like Japan are still obsessed with making their skin colour lighter.

If we’re looking into a cultural context, Chinese culture sometimes views dark skin as bad luck. An example is when an African American man I know encountered a very traditional Chinese woman. Upon meeting him, she started to perform hand movement rituals, stating that doing so was warding off his bad luck. Chinese tradition see darkness as a harbringer of evil spirits, while white is good and safe. However, this is the only thing I came across to justify the obsession with fairer skin in a spiritual context. And the thing is this: not everyone in Asia is Chinese. Indians are obsessed with light skin– famously so! I’m from the island parts of Southeast Asia, where most of us are tan due to our equatorial location. But even then, people around me are absolutely obsessed with fair skin to the point that people will regularly comment on skin colour first (“You’ve gotten dark!” or “She’s really fair!”) before they comment on your body shape. 

The worrying thing is not limited to the aforementioned social divide. Chic adverts are constantly made to justify the belief that white is superior, but rarely does the company marketing these things ever mention the possibility of dangerous chemical substance in the product. The World Health Organisation found that a lot of skin lightening products contain mercury, which may damage the nervous system and organs from too much exposure. No one wants to talk about things being dangerous as long as they result in a profit and so-called “beauty,” even if they don’t actually do what they say they will! Just a small amount of mercury exposure can cause serious health issues. If even that can cause substantial damage, how much mercury accumulates if skin whitening cream is dabbed on every single day?

I’m an advocate of doing what you want with your body. However, I am against the insidious marketing of these whitening products and the fact that they exist now and have become an integral part of my environment. Corporations need to stop marketing these products the way they have been; the attitude of one skin being superior than another should be stopped. Aim for healthy skin, regardless of colour, instead of emphasising whiteness as an ideal. Not every skin pigmentation is the same, and not every skin pigmentation will allow itself to be white just because I dab satan’s spit on it. It gets even worse when products begin introducing creams or gels to whiten your vagina. If that’s the extent to which skin whitening has gone, it is troubling indeed. In societies whereby women are already considered as second class citizens, putting pressure on body weight and skin colour places more burden on them when it comes to beauty standards.

And the mercury content? Societal beauty standards over the long term condition of your health? Gimme a break, skin lightening products! Give us something safe, and stop imposing ideals that allow social inequality to continue. It’s bad enough that the governmental transition in a lot of Asian countries after colonialism has created a lot of current social and political instability. To have colour ideals as another problem to add to these societal imbalance shouldn’t be another burden we have to tackle just because you want to sell your products.

Written by Teah Abdullah
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Header image courtesy of Chiya Biskut