Graphics: Ayonti Mahreen Haq
For more than 40 years, Curry Corner, a tiny store in Melbourne’s CBD that specialises in Indian imports, has been selling spices and lentils. But what catches the eye almost instantly is the large collection of skin-whitening products in the front right corner of the shop. From a skin bleaching cream for “instant golden glow” by Fem to a whitening cream called “Fair & Lovely”, there is a chemical formula available for every part of the body. Yes, even the privates.
I looked at myself in the tiny mirror hanging on the wall and thought, “I love this chocolate flavour on me.” But I couldn’t resist reading the taglines on the products.
Growing up with a darker skin tone, I was often told lightening my skin would accentuate my features. Some comments were even more overt, simply telling me I would look prettier with light skin.
Before boarding my flight to Melbourne from Delhi last year, I stopped at the airport drugstore to buy myself lotion for the journey. Without knowing what I wanted, the shopkeeper pulled out a Nivea Skin Whitening Lotion which also offered a Nivea Underarm Whitening Deodorant for free.
Now, back in Curry Corner in Melbourne, the retail assistant watches me inspecting the cream. “Everybody buys them,” the assistant says encouragingly.
According to intelligence firm Global Industry Analysts, the market for such products is expected to reach US$31 billion by 2024. India alone has a $200 million strong skin-whitening product industry.
Cherry, a pharmacist at Priceline on Bourke Street, says light skin is considered “good” in Asian culture. “La Roche Posay does have a skin whitening cream, but we’re out of stock at the moment. I think the target audience is mainly Asian women in Australia. It could be cultural issue or personal preference, it’s hard to say,” says Cherry while putting other La Roche Posay products on the shelf.
But not everyone agrees that skin whitening products make huge sales. Sales assistant Narender Singh at ‘India at Home’ in Box Hill is one of them. “These products [pointing towards a shelf with skin lightening bleach creams] have been sitting here for a year, nobody is buying them.”
“Maybe people are getting over white skin,” Narender says, laughing. “Although, Ayurveda (natural) products for skin have been very popular, recently.”
“Do they promise fairer skin?”
After a long pause, Narender, seemingly surprised with himself says, “Well, yes.”
Even DIY skin care remedies, made famous by Instagram beauty gurus and social media influencers, reek of a strong desire to have a lighter skin tone. Articles like ‘How to whiten skin from kitchen supplies’ are wildly popular.
Lightening one’s skin is perceived to come with increased privileges and higher social standing. Hundreds of years of colonisation of People of Colour has led white skin to be linked to leadership or supremacy. Melbourne based spoken word artist, Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa, believes that white has always been linked to purity, and that is a problem. “I think purity is a big theme in South Asian religious ideologies and culture has dictated that pure = white = clean, and impure = black/ darkness = dirty. Even if you ask young kids to draw “God” they will immediately draw an old white man in the sky/clouds. Why is God a white man?”
The desire to have lighter skin is normalised and sold everyday. From billboards to TV advertisements, we are bombarded with “revolutionary techniques” for skin whitening, often featuring a scientist in a white coat, mixing chemicals in a sterile laboratory.
In 2017, Dove received backlash after posting an ad that showed a black woman removing her shirt and being replaced with a white woman. The same year, an advertisement for skin-whitening pills with the slogan “white makes you win” made headlines. In the ad, Thai model Cris Horwang’s skin gradually darkens as she says: “If I stop taking care of myself, everything I have worked for, the whiteness I have invested in, may be lost.”
Racism in ads for skin whitening products is not new. Australia’s share of such ads dates back to early 1900s. The Nulla-Nulla soap ad with slogan “Australia’s White Hope, The Best Household Soap”, shows a seemingly black woman with word “DIRT” wrapped around her neck. A white hand can be seen hitting the woman on the head.
Wiradjuri author Kathleen Jackson writes that the most literal reading of Nulla-Nulla advertisement would be that it is a particularly good soap because it can clean even the dirtiest object perceived, which in this case is a black woman.
Some countries have taken steps to discourage skin whitening and the harmful advertising practices associated with it. Last year, Ghana banned the use of hydroquinone, the primary chemical found in skin whitening bleaches and creams. Ghana is one of the three African countries to regulate skin whitening products, along with Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa. The chemical is also banned in Europe, but Australia has taken no such steps.
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) prohibited cosmetic brands from communicating any discrimination based on skin colour through advertising in 2014. Given how widespread the advertising for fairness and skin lightening products is and the concerns of different stakeholders in society, ASCI took the decision seeking industry and public feedback.
One of the main guidelines reads, “These ads should not reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour. Specifically, advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin, in a way which is widely seen as unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned.”
Individuals are also working to change the culture of skin whitening. Indian activist Kavitha Emmanuel initiated a campaign in 2009 called Dark is Beautiful. It seeks to draw attention to the unjust effects of skin colour bias and celebrate the beauty and diversity of all skin tones. Kavitha says that even though banning these products might help, it is not the final solution.
“We need to change the mindset. If people won’t be able buy skin whitening products, they will experiment at home, the DIY way. As long as they believe whiter skin to be better skin, such bans can’t stop them. What we need to do is change the thinking, that’s the real fight,” says Kavitha, over the phone.
Almost a hundred years later and despite several awareness campaigns, the skin whitening industry continues to grow. Businesses avoid social responsibility by claiming they are simply exercising their right to do business. But in the process, they push a racist and anti-feminist system that forces one to confirm to Eurocentric standards of beauty.
After analysing all the products himself, sales assistant Narendar says, “They shouldn’t sell these anymore. It’s not a nice thing to do, is it?”