Creating people's geographies
At some point last year, I was introduced to Amina Mire’s work on skin bleaching. I was reminded of Amina’s essay Pigmentation and Empire when coming upon two of these vids flogging skin-lightening creams by way of Graeme’s blog, and I’ve borrowed two of the puns from Graeme’s readers who share my disdain for this phenomenon of companies such as L’Oreal and Unilever Hindustan (who own the ‘Fair and Lovely’ brand) helping to make women feel as if they don’t measure up and need to lighten their skin to somehow be beautiful.
Is this blamecasting companies for a culture that has existed for thousands of years in some places? India’s caste systems were well entrenched long before colonialism set in, but it is also true that these cosmetics corporations are exploiting and sustaining it. Both the culture and the companies are part of a system that needs deeper examination — this post is merely a brief introduction in which I do not assign singular culpability as much as invite you to consider the history and politics further and to decide for yourself.
The practise of skin-whitening can be found everywhere but is particularly common in India, Asia, Africa and the United States. Going by two of the advertisements below, it looks like a similar market is being created in the Middle East.
Living in a country such as Australia where tanned skin is viewed as healthy and beautiful and Caucasians are often at a natural disadvantage to their Mediterranean (olive) and Aboriginal (black and brown-skinned) fellow citizens, the beauty ideal is the opposite. This is a problem for Caucasians particularly and all Australians generally as we have the biggest rates of skin cancer in the world.
I can only hope each of us values our natural beauty and diversity. Brown skin is gorgeous; olive is awesome; black is beautiful, white too is beautiful. I can’t say I buy into the argument that these products simply cater for a preexisting market, though the literature on India in particular seems to examine the line that internalised racism is ingrained in the culture. I think these companies help create and perpetuate that market by making women (and men) feel less than adequate with the beauty they already possess, as illustrated in the advertisement’s story-lines of brown skin=rejected for job; lighter skin=happy and successful. (See appended article links)
Each of the advertisements is less than a minute in duration. The three skin lightening advertisements are followed by a related and heart-breaking 7 minute video entitled ‘A Girl Like Me‘ produced by Kiri Davis who does a superlative job. It shows how socialising young girls starts even before they encounter the cosmetics counter and the burgeoning industry that manufactures, exploits and inflates ethnic insecurities.
Addendum: some off-blog discussion has explored how a preference for lighter skin may also have been cultivated with one’s class and station in life (ie working in the fields–thanks Print), with the lighter skin of the indoorsy aristocracy being imitated by labouring folk. While this is a racially charged topic and race is a most important and key plank; class, culture, health, psychology and other variables certainly come into play.
‘Fair and Lovely’ Middle East
‘Fair and Lovely’ II
‘Fair and Lovely’ India (double click on this one to view at YouTube site)
A Girl Like Me