The Skin-Lightening Obsession

Millions of South Asians and Southeast Asians wake up every day to be disappointed by their skin color. The sight of their skin in the reflection of ...

Jan 25, 2014

Millions of South Asians and Southeast Asians wake up every day to be disappointed by their skin color. The sight of their skin in the reflection of their mirrors brings them shame. Hence people turn to skin whitening products, such as creams or even bleach to attain lighter skin. It is thought that the lighter your skin tone, the more attractive and successful you are in life.
In a world where people are talking about fat-shaming, slut-shaming and other things, I feel like this issue is sometimes left in the dust. Not to say that fat-shaming and slut-shaming aren’t important issues. They are. But more attention needs to be directed to shaming darker skin. I cannot emphasize this enough. No one’s value or worth should ever be dictated by what color their skin is.
Let’s break down the problem. The fact is that skin-whitening creams are incredibly popular in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. In fact, in India alone, sales of skin-whitening cream totaled 258 tons in 2012, and the global market of skin whitening products is predicted to be around US$ 19.8 billion (72.7 billion AED) by 2018. Those are ridiculous figures, but they are hardly surprising. I have seen ads depicting lighter toned women as more successful, more confident and more attractive while darker toned women shrug their shoulders in self-disgust. I have seen products titled “White Beauty.” I have seen actresses become lighter over a period of time. When you grow up with such images, it is hard not to hate yourself for your skin tone.
Of course, the media, for the most part, play on cultural norms. The correlation between this lighter skin tone fetish and places that were conquered by the British is too prevalent to ignore. The British were never modest. They assumed superiority over those they conquered. It is an important strategy and one that is understandable. When it comes to power, such tactics are important. But when a certain nation that indulges in its superiority subjugates you and you cannot overcome them, you decide that you are inferior. A skin color, unfortunately, is a powerful representation of who you are and at that time, those with a darker skin colors considered them inferior. But if the British were the only reason this skin fetish exists, then it should have ended once the British left.
It didn’t because the issue is more complex than that. People with darker skin also represent the lower class. It is a matter of being exposed to the sun. The richer you are, the less prone you are to be exposed to the sun. Since the rich rarely have to work in the fields or on construction sites, they retain a lighter skin color. Those who are poor, however, do have to work under such conditions. So skin color becomes a matter of what class people belong to and necessarily how well they’re treated.
The issue, I should point out, is also closely related to gender. Relatively, men are subjected to this less than women. For a lot of women, their skin color becomes an issue because if they are darker toned, they aren’t considered attractive enough. Attractiveness, I’m afraid, plays a large part in whether women get married in network societies because marriage proposals revolve mostly around how a woman looks and the reputation of a family. For many women, their skin color dictates whether they get marriage proposals at all.
So what should be done? Talking about the issue helps, in my opinion. I was brought up in a society that told me I needed to protect my skin color.  I put on sunblock, not because I was scared of skin cancer, but because I was afraid my skin would get darker. As I grew older, I realized I lived in a society that was promoting extreme self-hate. Understanding the issue, why it exists and how the media portrays it can open the eyes of many, many people. When you grow up with certain values and ideals, it is hard to relinquish or even challenge them because you simply haven’t seen the problem from another perspective.
Progress is being made. Ads are deliberately cashing in on the realization of many that they can lead happy, successful lives with the color they were blessed with. But all in all, very few people across South and Southeast Asia know that there is nothing wrong with the way their skin looks. It’s a troubling thing to say, but it’s a reality for millions of people.
Muhammad Usman is a contributing writer. Email him at
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