Unfair and lovely

Last summer I spent a month backpacking in Bali, meaning that I went shopping for groceries in a lot of different local supermarkets. Something that I instantly noticed standing in the isles, was all the whitening oils. I could not find a single bottle of shampoo in most of the stores, but they always managed to have some sort of whitening oil in their inventory, stuffed between the soaps and small packages of nuts or next to some scissors. "Whitening extract" was even added to the makeup removers. I saw the same thing happening when I visited Malaysia a couple of years ago - facemasks, lotions and oils - all with withering purposes. Before visiting these parts of Asia myself, I had no idea that this issue existed, let alone how serious it is.

After doing some research on the subject I came across a brand named ‘Fair & Lovely’, which is one example of the many south asian skin-whitening products on the market. The search for "fair skin" has become a major money making industry and this brand in particular is one of the largest manufacturers of such products. The last few years, they have collaborated with several celebrities to reach even bigger audiences. In fact, Fair & Handsome (Fair & Lovely for men), has been endorsed by celebrities such as Keepika Padukone and SRK. The fact that celebrities with millions of impressionable fans are endorsing this kind of product, makes the fetishization of light skin gradually more deeply rooted, as each commercial tell the same story over and over: that lighter skin will lead to success. -And that Fair & Lovely therefore is the solution to an unhappy life.

Meanwhile, some people are claiming that such a product does not have a cultural nor social impact and that it is simply equal to tanning in the West. However, skin-whitening isn't a practice that can be compared to tanning for a very basic reason. On the one hand, you have tanning, which in most cases is simply a personal preference or considered trendy. On the other, you have skin-whitening in Asia, which after years of colonization and pressure, has become the norm - and eventually an obsession and money making industry. It is a problem that runs very deep. For instance, some ladies who I met in Ubud told me that darker skin tones are considered to be dirty. Both or them would put on whitening oil before bed and wake up early every morning to put their makeup on, in order to look whiter and more “pure”. This is the big difference. You never hear of anyone being considered dirty because of pale skin in the West. If you want to be superficial, you can go ahead and blame it on "you always want what you can’t have have", and compare it to tanning in the West - but let's be real, this is definitely a result of colonization.

Although it all started with British colonization, the issue has grown bigger due to the media and popular products such as Fair & Lovely (did I mention that Fair & Lovely was launched by the British-Dutch company Unilever?). Now, people are struggling both mentally and physically because of these kinds of products. First of all, women are consequently losing sight of their self-worth. For instance, dark skin is hardly ever represented in south asian media. At the same time, there is evidence that girls as young as 12–14 use fairness creams and oils. Can you believe that girls only at the age of twelve feel like they are worth less because of their skin color? Secondly, these whitening products often contain damaging ingredients. According to professor Zota from the George Washington University, fairness creams often contain hidden ingredients like topical steroids and toxic metal mercury. So, in other words: no, it’s not just a cream. It is a cream created as a result of ideas that stem from colonial times, that has a social, mental and physical impact.

On a positive note, movements have started online to combat the issue. Tags like #unfairandlovely #darkisbeutiful #BrownNProud has surfaced. But there is still a long way to go if we wish to see prejudices against dark skin go away in South Asia. India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan. These are only some of the countries in which Fair & lovely is available. It is also exported to other parts of the world, where they are sold in Asian supermarkets. While Unilever 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.", we know that this is a toxic industry and that skin color should not go hand in hand with your social position. Which is why we need to raise awareness and strengthen the belief that every skin color is beautiful and does not determine your worth nor “purity”.