Millennium Post

Brown & Lovely

A fairness cream for the face, one for the body, something for the armpits, one for men, and now a product for a fair vagina. Has our obsession for skin lightening gone too far this time?

A new product (Clean & Dry), that claims to whiten female intimate areas has come under fire because many believe that this time our obsession with being fair has crossed the line.

For decades, we have been told that fair is lovely. Our films and TV ads suggest that if you aren’t a certain shade of pale, then you risk getting employed, you’ll struggle to find a suitor, and society won’t take notice of you.  

This aspiration for fairer skin is not limited to India, a variety of skin lightening products are widely available in the Middle East, East Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

Throughout history, pale skin has been highly desired. Whether it was the ancient Egyptians who lightened their skin using foundation, or in the Renaissance when women powdered their face for a porcelain like effect. White skin has been seen as a status symbol, an instant recognition that you were wealthy enough to be able to afford to stay indoors, while laborers and people on low-income carried on with their daily lives in the sun.

With colonialism, these attitudes were further heightened. And over the years, skin lightening products have simply tapped into insecurities one may have with the colour and tone of the skin, and played upon status and class stereotypes associated with a dark complexion.

Now back to 2012, has the fairness discussion moved on? Do people in India still use fairness products because they suffer from a colonial hangover or is it simply a lifestyle choice for some men and women?

In the West, self tanning is a lifestyle choice. A tanned skin tone is often associated with being away on holiday. Where in the Renaissance and Victorian era wealth was associated with your ability to stay away from the sun, now it’s based on how much time you spend in the sun; jet setting around the world. It’s a luxury that only the very rich can afford on a regular basis, resulting in a brown complexion all year round. For the ones that can’t afford to go to Maldives or Marbella, there is always tan in a can.

If you walk into any high street beauty store in the UK, you’ll find aisles of products that promise to give you the complexion you desire - creams, lotions, spray cans, tablets that change the colour of your skin, but unlike India, these are products that make you brown.  

In 2010, industry analysts estimated the UK tanning market to be worth £100 million.

The Guardian reported that St. Tropez, a leading self-tanning brand, named after the town in southeastern France frequented by supermodels, film stars and millionaires, sells five bottles of bronzing lotion every minute and 40 bottles of bronzing mousse every hour.

Both men and women enjoy self-tanners. Some people fake tan to add a bit of a healthy glow, while other want a bit more of a colour to what they consider a pale complexion. Celebrities like Victoria Beckham and Simon Cowell are known to regularly use self tanning products.  

Why then is tanning seen as a trend and skin lightening seen as a taboo?

Clean & Dry advert director Alyque Padamsee, was quoted as saying, 'Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer — so what’s the problem?'

Everyone should have the choice to alter their appearance as it pleases them. The problem rises when in a country like India; that prides itself on its various dialects, and faiths, and skin colours, the media starts feeding the mindset that one skin colour is better than another, resulting in prejudice based on the colour of the skin.

The beauty industry and advertisers do have a responsibility to put an end to this craze. As an Indian woman with tanned skin, I want the beauty industry to offer women more than just the choice to alter the colour of our skin. What about the option to enhance our skin?

The beauty industry in India is booming, more and more international beauty and cosmetic companies are setting shop in the country. In a hot and humid country, where sun-damage, dark spots and wrinkles are also some other concerns facing Indian consumers, why do we only see Fair and Lovely and other fairness cream adverts reinforcing negative stereotypes. It’s time that Indian advertisers stop making money from Indian attitudes that exists towards darker skin.

After all, India’s biggest export to Hollywood isn’t fair skinned, light eyed Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, its dusky beauty Freida Pinto.

Priyanka Deladia is a journalist based in London.
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