Brighten, lighten, even it out...the obsession to perfect, bottle and achieve fairness continues to grow. It’s a fixation fuelled by cosmetic and advertising industries with multibillion dollar budgets which continue to inform standards of beauty, which in turn continue to feed on personal insecurities.
However, pushback against colourism from both countries and activists who work with decidedly smaller budgets is gaining traction through policy and social media.
West Africa’s Ghana is the latest country to take a stance against skin bleaching products. Starting August, Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) will impose a ban on cosmetics containing hydroquinone.
“Concerning skin lightening products, we are saying that from August 2016, all products containing hydroquinone will not be allowed into the country. From 2016, the acceptance for skin lightening products is going to be zero,” said FDA spokesperson James Lartey in an interview with Ghana Star.
Countries like the United States, Japan and Australia have also imposed tight regulations on the use of the ingredient. The US Food and Drug Administration which in 1989 declared hydroquinone safe in certain quantities proposed to withdraw the rule in 2006 after finding evidence the compound could be carcinogenic. The administration suggested using hydroquinone topically could cause the skin to darken.
The products which claim to really get under one's skin and make one look fairer are expected to be worth $20 billion by 2018 across the world. The fairness cream industry in India alone is worth $450 million. Skin-whitening and anti-aging products are the largest component of the facial care industry in the Asia-Pacific according to Transparency Market Research.
A former employee of a multinational consumer goods company justifies the investment, saying there is a perfect response to the backlash against fairness products. “We sell it because people want it.”
So why do we do it?
Fair skin has been internalised as a sign of beauty and affluence; skin that has not seen the drudgery of working under the harsh sun, skin that resembles that of the invaders and colonisers, skin that is white, a colour which represents innocence and purity.
From Ancient China to slaves in Africa to colonial India, generations grew up hearing loved ones draw connections between the colour of their skin and success. The comments are almost always personal, relentless, painful and tend to get under the thickest skin.
Suzanna Masih, a master’s student at City University of New York, told TRT World she used skin lightening products because she felt the pressure to be fair.
“As a kid I used to hear ‘yeh toh itni kali hai’ [she is so black] a lot,” she said. “Growing up, people in my family would say ‘why don’t you use 'X' cream or eat 'Y' herb and your skin will clear up’,” making Masih feel she had to change her lifestyle in order to look a certain — more acceptable — way.
Masih said she feels less conscious about her skin since moving to the United States from Pakistan. “But I know as soon as I go back I’ll become more self conscious again,” she added.
“I have so much in my head and people can’t see past my skin color.”
Fair is always fair
The “standards of beauty changed over the years,” but not where skin colour or “fairness” is concerned, said Pakistani dermatologist and laser specialist Dr Fehmida Arif during a telephone interview with TRT World.
“Most people who come to me in their 20s or 30s say they want [to whiten their skin] to [help them] get married; older women come when they feel the need to improve their look,” said Arif. “Sportspeople want to do it because the sun made them dark and [their skin] patchy. Actors say they want to look good,” she added.
“Men in marketing tell me 'If we are fair, we will look more appealing'. The ones who are gay say they want to look more feminine,” narrated Arif.
Dark is lovely
Since a significant proportion of the target audience lives in the subcontinent, the region has been the focus of big companies as early as the 70s when Unilever launched “the world’s first fairness cream” Fair & Lovely in India.
In 2005, Emani, Unilever's rival, introduced India’s first whitening cream for men, Fair and Handsome. The product gained great success and was endorsed by many famous Indian actors such as Shah Rukh Khan.
The desire to be white all over became even more personal in 2012 when a feminine wash promising to lighten the colour of genitals was advertised. The controversial ad suggested the product would make women more desirable to their husbands.
Some of the strongest voices battling colourism are also from the subcontinent.
Kalki Koechlin is an Indian actor of French heritage who is known for speaking out against whitening products. Speaking to TRT World over the telephone, Koechlin highlighted that diversity of beauty should be celebrated more often.
"I was born in South India and I have white skin; I was just very confused about where I belonged and who I am” she said. “I think you don’t just judge a book by its cover[..] Nobody expects me to speak fluent Tamil and be from South India and when I say I am, they look at me...funny.”
She said her experiences have helped change her to approach towards others, “I look at people and I like to know them for who they are and not for what they appear on the outside.”
Delving into the reasons why people in India value gorapann or being white, Koechlin said in India, historically, fair skin was associated with the upper class. “Those who were working in the fields were darker and the privileged lot were indoors and stayed fair. That’s the kind of mentality which begets fair is beautiful.”
The actor who made headlines in March for criticising celebrities for endorsing fairness creams said, “I don’t want to prevent people from using skin-lightening products, [afterall] I go to the beach and I want to get a tan. But the problem is the way we spell beauty in one direction.”
Koechlin pointed out, “We constantly change things about ourselves by exercising or getting a new haircut or colour; we do all sorts of things to make ourselves feel beautiful and I don’t want people to stop doing that but I think fairness has become more of a tool for advertising and making money than beauty.”
According to Koechlin, “The advertising world puts ‘beauty’ in a box: a certain facial shape or skin colour. All kinds of beauty exists, I think that should be celebrated more often.”
Maria Qamar who satirises the aunty culture and other South Asian idiosyncrasies through her Lichtenstien-esque pop art on her Instagram account @hatecopy, also touches on society's obsession with beauty.
One of her pieces (featured earlier in this article) is centered on what looks like a tube of fairness cream, framing the face of a girl who clearly looks traumatised.
Insecurities about skin colour tie into one's body image explained Lubna Khalid. She works with clients with body image, self-esteem and other emotional issues and is also the founder of Real Cosmetics, a company which “focuses on multicultural beauty and real women images.”
“I grew up in the United States, with Pakistani parents, and always felt different and had issues with my own self-esteem,” she told TRT WORLD over email.
“At age 16 I started modeling in LA, NY and Paris and at 5’9” and 100 pounds, I was told by my agent that I needed to lose weight.”
That was Khalid’s turning point; “This opened my eyes to what women deal with in regards to external pressures around body image.”
People who come to Khalid describe themselves using phrases such as “fat, too dark, too pale, ugly, small breasts, I hate my stomach, hair too nappy.” All powerful internalisations of external ideas of beauty.
Khalid’s clients range between the ages of 20 to 65 and include a “global spectrum” including Asian, Asian-American, African-American, Latin, Middle Eastern and European men and women. She noticed the trend of feeling "too dark" was mostly prevalent in South and South East Asians.
She said the desire to have fair skin is “an old idea rooted in social, economic and historical ideology.” Khalid explained, “In countries where it is hot, dark skin can be looked down upon as a sign of the working class.
Thus to be "fair and lovely denotes a higher socioeconomic class, as in India and Pakistan. There, fairness is also rooted in our history of being colonised by the English. The colonial mindset of white being better and more wealthy lingered in the mindset.”
Indian actress Nandita Das adds a powerful voice, calling on women to embrace their skin colour through the Dark is Beautiful campaign.
“I think ‘Dark is Beautiful’ is trying to say that we must be comfortable in our skin, even if the world around you tells us that you are not good enough if you are not fair,” she said in an online statement provided by her office.
“As far as ‘Dark is Beautiful’, is concerned, I am directly connected to the cause,” she said, reflecting back on her experiences. Nandita, who is often described as being “dark and dusky” said she would have relatives telling her as a child to “not to go out in the sun” so she would not become “darker.”
While on set she said there have been times where directors and camerapersons would tell her “it would be good if I made my skin lighter as I was playing an educated upper class woman!”
“If I get told all this, despite most people knowing my stand, I wonder what the other dark women are subjected to!” she emphasised.
She pointed out it was “heartbreaking” to see many people — teenagers in particular — to lose self confidence because of the pressure to be fair. “The colour of your skin can make you feel less worthy,” she added.
However, Nandita believes campaign's such as 'Dark is beautiful' will help make a change.“To change a mindset takes time, but even baby steps in the right direction are needed,” she said.