Fairly Unfair: Skin Lightening in the Modern Era

By Shinasa Shahid

Skin lightening is the use or misuse of creams, potions and drugs to change a person’s natural skin color. It is sometimes known as skin bleaching or skin whitening and euphemistically as skin toning. For generations people have been told and shown the advantages of fairness for success in many social and work settings. Some people believe that life would have been easier had they been born fairer.There is a persistent scientific debateabout the link between caste, colour and socioeconomic status. In India, there exists historical racism which can be traced back to the Mughalempire and British colonial period. People have witnessed positive social outcomes and increased privileges due to lighter skin tone. Skin colourhas effects on both self-esteem and self-efficacy but functions in different domains of the self for all individuals.

The distribution and marketing of skin lighteners have been banned or are strongly regulated in many Asian, African, and western countries.Many African countries have banned the importation of cosmetic products containing mercury and hydroquinone which are important ingredients in skin lighteners. South Africa is one of the first countries to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from claiming the ability to lighten skin. A threat to skin safety can be seen in reports particularly in low and middle-income countries. There are alarming rates of skin lightening in India. In one study, all 4368 patients who visited the dermatology department of an Indian hospital reported adverse effects of skin lightening which indicates their use or misuse of skin lighteners. In India the message is clear: ‘fairness is beauty’ so the fairer the better. Discrimination on the basis of skin colour can be witnessed in India’s centuries-old caste system which is based on firm hierarchies of social and hereditary-based occupation. It is an extremely unfortunate by-product of colonialism and caste.

A worrisome trend is associated with four core components of skin lighteners – hydroquinone, corticosteroids, retinoids and mercury. Many persons who practice skin lightening indicate benefits such as perceived increase in attractiveness, confidence and self-esteem, relief from bodily blemishes, and better appreciation from spouses. However there exist life threatening consequences from these products. Dermatologic consequences can be seen such as skin lesions, bacterial and fungal infections, scabies, acne, sun damage, body odour, fragile skin and scarring. More serious health risks include skin cancer, hypertension, infertility, renal and liver impairment and failure, diabetes, memory loss and tremors. Skin lightening and its harms are extremely understudied and long term use of these products-accounts for high rates of adverse-effects.

Let’s not be blind to the unfair market politics. Consumerism has greatly influenced the market of the multinational cosmetic houses. The media’s fixation with using fair-skinned actors have a great impact on the mindset of the general population. Many people therefore use skin lighteners to increase their perceived beautify and desirability. The relationship between marriage and colour has always been evident. An unpalatable truth is that lighter skin is sometimes the most important factor in finding a prospective partner irrespective of gender in India.Around 80% of the people who resort to skin lighteners are quite aware of the harmful effects of the products that they use. However, the utilization of the products hasn’t stopped. There is a clear skin color prejudice irrespective of caste or color and this plays a vital role. Fairer skin makes acceptance more likely.

One can understand the degree to which skin colour matters in India. However this issue has not been given the attention till date and hardly any constructive dialogue has taken place. The idea of ‘fairness is beauty’ that has been implanted and is deep rooted in the minds of many ordinary-Indians over generations has led to the insensible growth of this popular culture. This exact idea of beauty is now influencing and shaping the behavioral practices and preferences today. It is regrettable that a country boasting of its cultural and geographic diversity and secularism predominantly endorses a ‘fairness is beauty’- ideal on skin colour.

We have witnessed Tanishq who recently released a heart-warming commercial about inter-faith marriage and incurred the wrath of many.The flak received by Tanishq mocks the blind eyes to the abundant skin lightening advisement. Indian cosmetics-brands dole out terribly problematic skin lighteners and commercials and there is a lack of concern.The destigmatization of people with darker skin needs to be advocated. There is lack of enforcement of existing regulations in the country which needs to be addressed at the government level. Academia, legislators, policymaker-sand the media should engage in cross-cultural and inter disciplinary advocacy and research so as to educate the population on skin lightening.This could be the first step towards demystifying the ‘fairness is beauty’ ideal in the modern era.

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