What skin whitening industry reveals about colourism

January 12, 2021

Collage by Exposure using source images from Pixabay

Is this fair? Aya Pfeufer sheds light on why people use certain ‘beauty’ products, despite the risks

Skin lightening has become a booming, multi-billion-dollar industry, predicted to be worth around $24 billion by 2027. The market is growing, especially in parts of Asia and Europe.

Colourism (the prejudice that categorises people with a fairer complexion as having higher value) leads to demand for skin lightening products, to reduce the amount of melanin present in one’s skin to attain ‘status’.

Skin lightening has been around since 1500s in Asia. Currently, the demand is global: in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and parts of Africa, such as Nigeria where, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) 77% of women use skin lightening products.

Many skin lightening products do not mention the risks, or include all the damaging ingredients on the package

Common bleaching procedures include IV injections, creams and soaps. However, there are serious side effects as many products contain mercury, which is highly poisonous, and hydroquinone. Both increase the risk of skin cancer and kidney damage.

Many skin lightening products do not mention the risks, or include all the ingredients on the package. Often products contain larger amounts of potentially damaging chemicals than that recommended by WHO.

IV injections contain glutathione and steroids, which can cause severe skin rashes, scars and damage to the nervous system.

Some buyers of skin lightening products are aware of the side effects but still risk their health for lighter skin, whereas others may not be educated about the side effects.

Why do people lighten their skin?
There are a range of historical factors that have contributed to the use of skin lightening products. One significant cause is slavery. In fact, slaves were often separated into ‘light-skin black’ or ‘dark-skin black’ people by their owners.

Light-skin blacks were somewhat privileged in that they were given the less strenuous jobs – such as being a domestic house worker –  instead of more demanding, physical outdoor work.

This discriminates between blacks and, over the years, may have affected the opportunities some had access to. In fact, a repercussion of this may be the ‘The Paper Bag Test’ which was used in African-American sororities, societies, churches and clubs. The test decided if a person was accepted into a community or could have privileges. Their skin colour had to be the same as or lighter than the paper bag, otherwise they would be excluded and discriminated against.

An example of this were clubs called ‘The Blue Vein Societies’ to test how much European ancestry a person had. If their veins did not show, they would not be accepted into certain social circles.

Western influences
Western influence and colonisation have heavily influenced beauty standards. People may have believed that having features considered more European, with a lighter complexion, is the ideal.

This reminds me of a very moving phrase of Malcom X: “Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin?”

This encourages us to question why some people are conflicted with their physical appearance. It challenges why dark skin has been disregarded and repressed through humiliation and restrictions.

In the Philippines, around half the population uses skin lighteners. Historically the Philippines was colonised by Spain, which introduced the worship of the Virgin Mary, bringing many light-skinned statues and icons. Perhaps the Filipinos were influenced by this. Also poverty levels are high, and some believed that being lighter would increase their chances of becoming more successful and having more opportunities in life.

Excessive marketing
Skin lightening is encouraged through excessive marketing, advertising and endorsements. For example, Alia Bhatt, a well-known Bollywood actress, appears in adverts for Garnier, a skin lightening product.

In 2017, Alia featured in an advert for Light Compete White Speed Serum Cream that promised ‘brightening’ and ‘fairness’ of your skin. Alia Bhatt appears in another advert for Garnier.

This received conflicting views and a backlash. Even though it projected the message that Garnier’s product would ‘reduce dark spots’, the advert also mentioned that the product would ‘brighten your face’ which can come across as undermining darker skin tones.

Here’s a link to another controversial advert, this time for Nivea:

The message of these adverts may be open to interpretation. However, they subtly hint that having a ‘lighter’ complexion is more desirable and appealing. This could be conflicting for some people, leading to negative comparisons and causing them not to accept themselves or fear they are not accepted.

Companies that make products such as Nivea and Fair & Lovely benefit from these insecurities. These products are not that expensive, which means they are more accessible.

Overall, these companies’ target audience are women. On average women have a higher level of anxiety over their physical appearance compared to men. There may also be social pressure to use these skin bleaching products.

Celebrating darker skin tones
There is even a derogatory term used for dark skinned Indians: ‘kali kaluti’, which means that you are not considered desirable. This is an example of colourism in Indian society and, in response, a group of women started a campaign called Dark is Beautiful, to raise awareness.

Similarly, Beyonce’s song ‘Brown Skin Girl’ embraces, elevates and celebrates darker skin tones.

I’ve learnt that colourism is deeply rooted in society, and is a social construct that places people into artificial categories. There is also an over-representation of white actors, singers, presenters and politicians in the media compared to ethnic minorities.

I found it powerful when Anne Hathaway, a prominent white actor, used her platform to raise awareness of white privilege. She said, “It’s a myth that all races revolve around whiteness.”

What more can we do?
If you are affected by the issue of colourism, I would advise you to first question where your thoughts come from; question the stereotypes associated with different skin tones that you may have been taught. You may have picked them up from social media, pop culture, at home or in social groups.

I think it is beneficial to first acknowledge and accept your thoughts, and then embrace your identity and culture, even if it is under-represented currently.

It would also be beneficial to teach children at a young age about colourism and discrimination, through the school curriculum or an alternative method such as at home, which is where these discussions can begin.

Allowing a safe space (e.g. community groups and classrooms) may help people change their perception, redefine beauty standards and views on skin tone, and could also be an outlet to share experiences on colourism.

Finally, I think it’s vital for young people to see more representations of people of all shades in prominent fields.