By Charundi Panagoda, Communications Intern
Colombo. Sri Lanka. An entire shelf in the “beauty products” section of Cargill’s supermarket is stacked with Fair & Lovely products–little pink rectangular boxes decorated by two versions of the same female face. One is dark and depressed; the other is white and beaming.
Business for skin “lightening” products and skin bleaching procedures are booming across Asia from Bombay to Tokyo. The market was estimated to be worth 18 billion dollars in 2009, according to Public Radio International, with more than 60 global companies competing for it. A survey by global market research company Synovate found that four out of 10 women in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea use a skin-whitening cream. Products like Unilever’s Fair & Lovely promises to turn dark-skinned Asian women into glowing, bright-faced beauties, because, as is often implied, women with dark complexions are ugly, undesirable and unhappy. Why not let the beauty industry help you get that ideal white complexion?
In Asia, being fair is a fundamental element of measuring beauty, and then a woman’s worth. Little Asian girls are told from an early age to shelter themselves from the sun, hide their little heads under an umbrella, anything to save the skin from getting too brown. The preference for fair-skinned women is deeply rooted in the incredibly diverse cultures of Asia, and is a combination of post-colonial influences and traditional concepts of beauty. The white privilege in colonial times stressed the need to look white to get ahead in society.
In the 21st century, heavily Western influenced mass media flood the market with advertisements featuring Caucasian models over local models, reinforcing the idea that white is beautiful, be white to be beautiful. Far worse yet, Asian celebrities endorse these products, giving them legitimacy. In one Indian commercial featuring Bollywood superstars, a man turns down a woman for being too dark. Dejected, the woman turns to skin-lightening products to be beautiful, successful and desirable.
Studies have found that having white skin significantly affects an Asian woman’s earning potential and social status. In China, women are pressured to be fair to get ahead in a career or to get a boyfriend. In India, classifieds looking for brides often openly declare the desire for a “fair” woman.
Amid the social pressure, women are risking their health to look white. Skin lightening products contains substances such as hydroxyquinone that can be detrimental to the user’s health, according to a BBC article. Some illegal products contain steroids and mercury, which has led to women’s deaths. Included among the prominent health concerns affecting women because of these products are self-esteem, self-image and anxiety issues. Negative images of being dark-skinned stigmatizes otherwise healthy and capable women, making them overly conscious about their skin color. The social attitudes around them make them feel inferior and incomplete, and force them into extreme practices to look white. The products also perpetuate racism by reducing people to the color of their skin. Asians, and all others haunted by skin color, should censure skin lightening products. Women are worth more than their outer shell. Appearance alone should not determine a person’s life.