I don’t know about you, but this commercial for Fair & Lovely, a skin “lightening” (*cough* whitening *cough* Michael Jackson) cream made me gag:
Essentially, the girl’s obstacle to attaining her dream job was…wait for it…her darker skin. And what got her the dream job? Wait, wait, I know! It was her Fair & Lovely skin cream!
Oh dear God.
I came across this video (made for the Middle Eastern market) after watching an interview a friend and fellow blogger Anushay Hossain did with Canadian channel CBC last week. In a segment entitled, “Bollywood in Toronto,” they discussed the skin-lightening issue and how the Bollywood culture perpetuates a “white” or Caucasian standard of beauty. According to Anushay, the demand for these creams has actually increased in the last few years, up 18% in 2009 and 25% last year. The Loreal country manager for India, she noted, also has said that 60-65% of Indian women use these creams on daily basis.
We’ve talked about this issue before on CHUP, when contributor Maria Saadat wrote,
We belong to an age where dark beauties like Rani Mukherjee and Bipasha Basu sizzle on screen, and fake tanner is sold by the millions in the U.S. so that lighter-skinned ladies can achieve the bronzed glow most of us Pakistanis are born with. The whole world is trying to go darker, yet our society is still hung up on what products or methods to use to become just a few shades paler. Who do we blame for this? Should we condemn advertisers hawking skin-lightening products to the working classes with the promise that success will come with fair skin? Should we point fingers at our great grandparents who passed their own prejudices down to the younger generations?
In her interview, Anushay called this type of behavior and adherence to such standards a “colonial hangover.” But why do these remnants remain, these pervasive inferiority complexes and shards of self-hatred? Is it a function of our colonial past, or can it be more simply traced to our more transnational present – where the beauty standard is arbitrarily decided for us, then packaged and shipped across cultures and boundaries? The fact that skin color has deeper societal roots, linked to class and caste, further reflects the complexity of this issue.
This is not just a South Asian problem.
At a beauty salon not too long ago, a frenzy occurred when a Vietnamese woman walked in. As the crowd around the woman gathered in excitement, another Vietnamese manicurist turned to me and whispered conspiratorially, “Ah. Yeah. She just got back from Vietnam. She got her eyes done. And she got dimples.” The Financial Times noted in an article last year, “Across Asia there are cultural traditions – from the chalking of geishas’ faces in Japan, to the effects of Spanish colonisation in the Philippines where dark and light skin continues to be polarized on the social scale – that reflect and reinforce the idea that the fairer the skin, the better.”
My African American friend and I recently had a related discussion about similar standards of beauty in the African American community, and how it has influenced women’s perceptions of their hair texture and skin color. In The Bluest Eye, author Toni Morrison commented on how society inflicts on its members “an inappropriate standard of beauty and worth, a standard that mandates that to be loved one must meet the absolute ‘white’ standard of blond hair and blue eyes.” Despite efforts like Black is Beautiful, a 1960s movement to address self-hatred, and Brown is Beautiful, a campaign to embrace more Native American-Mestizo features, communities all continue to strive for a standard that is manufactured and forced.
Beauty, even for “white” people, (who, let’s face it, also are trying to fit the mold), is often depicted as unattainable.
In South Asia, the supply for lightening creams continues because demand persists, even for men’s products. The men’s version of Fair & Lovely – Fair & Handsome – made $13 million in sales in 2008. See this ad below (the tagline: Women are attracted to fair and handsome men. So be one of them. Gag.)
Bollywood’s Shahrukh Khan is the brand ambassador to Fair & Handsome. Although this endorsement earned Khan criticism, it does point to the notion that Bollywood and local celebrities can play a role in reframing the beauty standard, and challenging the current demand. But reframing also means diversifying. There should never be one standard of beauty, for any culture or race. Period. But because that is way easier said than done, and nothing can be changed overnight, I’ll instead allow for further discussion on this topic. Converse away.