Imagine this, you’ve completed your graduation and the thrill of convocation is just fading and the worry of job is slowly taking over. You’re thinking of the options, where to apply and how and then, you discover a fairness cream which will not only make your skin two shades lighter but also get you the dream job. Wait, what? A cream will land you a job? The absurdity of it all makes you laugh out loud but do you know that by 2024, the global demand of whiteness products will reach USD 31.2 billion? And that the Asia-Pacific region is one of the most sought after markets which accounts for more than half of the global market? The figures are worrying indeed.
A little cousin’s first words were ‘ami kaalo’ (I am dark) and while everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed over how adorable her baby words were, I was petrified. A little girl was growing up knowing that she was not pretty enough, she was not good enough and how horrible it must have felt to realize all these from a young age. A classmate of mine would get facial bleaches at beauty salons almost every month. Her complexion, although not stark like Americans or Russians, was whiter than the average Bengali skin. Yet her constant worry was how to remain fairer for longer and how to maintain her skin colour. One time there was a bleaching accident and she had burn marks all over her face. As soon as her skin healed, she went back to her old routine of whitening and chemical peeling and what not. I wondered was it just her or was it our entire society which coerced her into believing that white means beauty and getting darker means you stop being beautiful.
If we look back in history, the billion dollar business of fairness products did not happen overnight. Some believe that ever since the colonial period when the white British used to think them superior to the native residents, we had been taught that those with fairer skin somehow deserve better. Racist terms such as ‘blacky’ or ‘native’ were often used by the British regime. The rogue Nazi leader Hitler wanted to create a pure-bred ‘Aryan’ bloodline of white skinned blue eyed human beings and went on mad research projects to do so. Much like slow poisoning, the concept of fair skin as a beauty standard has seeped into our culture over centuries.
The list of celebrities who have endorsed fairness creams and are still doing so is very long; long enough for us to ponder when this social stigma surrounding dark skin is going to end. Beyoncé Knowles, the American Queen of pop came under fire for looking too white and “virtually unrecognizable” in one advertisement for hair colour. The company however rejected all allegations and stated that there was no photoshopping or editing involved when everyone could see how she looked a lot paler than usual. When influential celebrities such as Beyoncé or Shahrukh Khan endorse fairness creams, it makes one question why is everything money and not about social wellbeing? Marketing gimmicks have left nothing sacred, for them the definition of feminism means equal rights to get fairer skin for both men and women!
The fairness products which make promises of fairer and clearer skin often contain harmful chemicals like lead and mercury which can cause skin problems and even cancer. The bleaching agents sometimes damage the outermost layer of the skin and lead to inflammation, contact dermatitis and spotting. Some of the creams contain steroid which can cause more harm. Dermatologists are of the opinion although skin is the largest organ of our body, it is extremely vulnerable and needs proper care which should not be treated with chemicals or toxins. Some unscrupulous companies even try to sell their products under the guise of the ingredients being ‘herbal’ or ‘natural’.
One of the deeply rooted problems of societies such as ours is that we have, unfortunately, put beauty and fair skin on the same pedestal. For us, beautiful people have fairer skin and dark skinned women are doomed for life. It is heartbreaking to see so many parents and guardians push their daughters to be fairer and win the hearts of potential in-laws. As global giants are trying to come up with more ‘natural’ bleaches and spot erasers for the perfectly pearly white skin, others in the European market are selling tanning products to tone down the naturally white skin. So the definition of beauty is actually a whirlwind of unethically set standards which not only harm your inner confidence but also makes you fall for notions such as white is right or brown is beautiful. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder but we are yet to understand it.
We have reached many milestones, for example who would have thought that the global MeToo movement would also reach Bangladesh and that women would be vocal about sexual harassment! Sometimes the unthinkable happens and takes us by surprise so we can only hope that soon in the future we will also end this stigma surrounding natural skin colour and teach our children to embrace themselves.
Promila Kanya is working with Bangladesh Post