The quest for a lighter shade of pale

Skin whiteners are all the rage in Asia, but some see racism in the advertisements

The quest for a lighter shade of pale

White Beauty is a skin cream sold in India, made by Pond’s, that promises to lighten darker complexions. By using the product, brown-skinned persons can achieve “a pinkish white glow,” according to a series of recent television advertisements for the product. In one of these ads, a young woman is caught in a love triangle. She has been ditched for another lady, and longs to win back her man. For all the glossy production, there is nothing subtle about the story: the new girlfriend is pale and pinky, the jilted girlfriend has a dusky complexion. The ending is predictable: dusky uses White Beauty and wins back her sweetheart.

These ads were screened in India over the past few months, with an almost identical ad airing across Asia. (The Asian commercial was for Flawless White, a similar product made by the same company, Unilever.) Women’s groups in India decry such ads, deeming them offensive and racist, “denigrating to dark skin,” says Brinda Karat, the general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. The organization is campaigning to have advertisements for skin whiteners banned. They have met with the national Indian government to lobby lawmakers and voice their concerns. They have already achieved some success. Ads for the Fair and Lovely brand of lightening cream, also made by Unilever, were dropped in 2003 after Karat’s group lodged a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi. Ads for that cream depicted impoverished, darker-skinned women trapped by their circumstances and, implicitly, by the colour of their skin. In each, the dusky ladies were able to better themselves by slathering on Fair and Lovely. Once they were whiter, they were able to improve their circumstances, and land their dream jobs, as air stewards, actors and even cricket commentators.

Karat’s campaign is twofold. She wants to encourage Indians to see brown as beautiful, and to reject any idolization of paler complexions. She says the existing hierarchy is damaging and demeaning to a people (and also a continent) who, for the large part, have very different skin tones from the white ideal many espouse. To encourage people to rethink their attitudes toward race, she has launched an education campaign, distributing leaflets and holding meetings. These focus on raising awareness of the racism, subtle or overt, in the advertisements for these products, she says. They also look at the possible health concerns of skin whiteners.

Although not all of these creams use toxic chemicals, many of them use hydroquinone, a substance that is banned in concentrations of more than two per cent for over-the-counter beauty products in North America because of alleged links to skin cancer. (This whitener can be prescribed in higher concentrations by dermatologists to remove uneven pigmentation.) Other creams contain different compounds that inhibit production of melanin, which can be detrimental because it produces the dark pigmentation that protects the skin against the sun.

Pond’s says the active ingredients in White Beauty are lycopene and vitamin B3. Neither of these are bleaching agents; instead, explains John Goldhar, a prominent Toronto dermatologist, they are antioxidants that act as sunscreens. However, other unregulated creams contain mercury salts, or other bleaching agents such as hydrogen peroxide or magnesium peroxide. Mercury is more common than one might think: a study in 2000 by the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong tested 38 creams and found that eight of them contained excessive mercury. Although extreme reactions are rare, 19 Hong Kong women were hospitalized in 2002 with mercury poisoning linked to a skin whitening cream imported from mainland China.

The side effects of skin whiteners depend on the active ingredients, but a few weeks ago the British Skin Foundation issued a warning on the dangers of some of these creams, and Britain’s National Health Service has warned they can cause permanent skin bleaching, thinning of skin, blue-black discolouration or redness, or intense irritation.

Despite such health concerns, Karat and other women’s groups face an uphill battle. Skin lightening products are popular, and very much part of the cultural landscape. The Indian skin care market alone is worth an estimated $300 million, with companies such as Pond’s, Avon, Garnier, the Body Shop, Jolen, Olay, L’Oréal, Elizabeth Arden, Revlon and Estée Lauder all producing lightening creams. Seventy per cent of every dollar spent in a beauty salon in India goes toward skin lightening products. About two-thirds, or 60 per cent, of Indian women use these creams daily, according to research from L’Oréal India, as reported by the New York Times. And India is not alone: in an Internet survey, 30 per cent of the Chinese respondents use skin whiteners either daily or weekly, as do 18 per cent of Japanese, according to research published last year by ACNielsen.

This story plays out in Korea and the Philippines: the same survey revealed that 52 per cent of Koreans would prefer to have a fairer complexion, as would 28 per cent of Filipinos. There is an assumption that “fair is beautiful and dark-skinned women are usually provincial lasses from a lower income bracket,” explains Johanna Poblete, a reporter with Manila-based BusinessWorld, who has reported on the issue. Racial prejudices permeate such an environment: a number by the Filipino band Parokya ni Edgar voices the popular line, “we’re not turned on by your chocolate-coloured cheeks” (“Di kami natu-turn on sa kutis mong kulay champorado”). Another Filipino hit contained the boast, “mas maputi ang kutis ko,” or “my cheeks are paler than yours.”

Such biases are rooted in the age-old desire to please the opposite (or same) sex. In Malaysia, 74 per cent of men are attracted to women with fairer complexions, according to one survey; 68 per cent of Hong Kong men and 55 per cent of men in Taiwan said they preferred paler partners. In India, advertisements seeking brides or grooms for arranged marriages often request fair skin as a sought-after attribute, along with professional qualifications and a specific clan or social order.

There are deeper reasons too, says Nestor Castro, a cultural anthropologist at the Manila-based University of the Philippines. In southeast Asia, fair skin has been a symbol of wealth for centuries, he says, because only the rich could afford to stay inside rather than work in the fields. In the Philippines, certain women—the binukot—were kept out of the sun and were whiter than their brethren: the name literally means those who have been segregated, he says. They had wealth, prestige and power; they were the It girls of their villages. They were knowledgeable too: they were responsible for memorizing the folklore that preserved local history and the great Filipino epics. If you wanted to imitate their pale complexion, you could buy the appropriate cosmetics. Whitening powder was made from ground-up rice, and it was a valuable luxury and highly sought after. When the Europeans invaded, colonization didn’t introduce racial prejudices, but it exacerbated and codified them, Castro explains. In the Philippines, the Spanish ruled, and the mixed race Mestizos (half Spanish and half Filipino) were given positions of power and considered higher class than the pure Filipinos.

This story plays out in other Asian countries too: India has long had similar racial distinctions—the fairer Aryans are at the top of the social hierarchy, and the darker Dravidians dominate the lower classes, says Urvashi Butalia, the director and co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house. Religion reinforces these racial divisions, she says. In Hinduism, deities often divide according to skin colour: the positive gods, such as Sita Lakshmi or Saraswati, are fair, the negative ones dark, says Butalia. Indeed, the goddess of death and destruction’s name, Kali, actually means black in Sanskrit, although she is not viewed as evil in all of her manifestations. Once again, colonization didn’t introduce these divisions, but it also didn’t help. The pale-skinned English dominated the positions of power, and this hierarchy affected ideas about race long after the initial power structure collapsed, Butalia explains. “The desire to be white is present in the Hindu religion and pantheon,” she says.

In a written statement to Maclean’s, Unilever said that its creams catered to demand, and many companies manufacture similar lightening products. The desire to be fair among Asian consumers was no different from the Caucasian urge to be tanned. “In this context, there is nothing to suggest that the manufacture of such beauty products is exploitative or demeaning.” Previously, the company has said that its commercials are not “intended to suggest any correlation between skin colour and beauty.”

For Butalia and others, this link could not be more explicit; she believes it not only helps sales, but shapes people’s tastes and desires, entrenching the “fair skin is best” attitude. As proof, she points to the demand for whiteners among men. Practically non-existent 20 years ago, these creams are now promoted by leading politicians, such as Filipino senator Panfilo Lacson, and Bollywood actors such as Shahrukh Khan. A recent study by Ernst & Young shows sales among men have been growing at 150 per cent annually in Asia, compared to 20 per cent annually among women. Such figures suggest that Butalia and others who oppose the creams have their work cut out for them. “There is a latent desire to be fair,” Butalia says. “But the advertising campaigns also affect the popularity of these products. They suggest a dark woman is of no use, and we find that offensive.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.