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Why are skin whitening products so popular?

Skin whitening products aim to do as their name suggests; to whiten or lighten your skin. While they are used worldwide, their use is particularly widespread in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. The global skin whitening industry is expected to be worth over $30 billion by 2024 with countries such as India having half of its entire skincare market represented by skin whitening products.

So why are skin whitening products so popular?

It’s argued that the desire for these products emanates from perceptions of social status. For some countries this is a lingering legacy of colonialism. By virtue of being in the right place in the right time, several European countries colonized countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. A lasting legacy is a desire for people in these countries to emulate those who had wealth and power; in this case, light-skinned peoples.

In European countries, darker skin was associated with low social status. It was the poor laborers who had to work outside in the sun without any shade. The pale skinned people were those with money who stayed indoors. And so the same phenomenon occurred in countries that were colonized. Those with wealth and power were the light skinned colonizers, and there was a desire among the population to be emulate the wealthy.

There is a similar phenomenon that is rumoured to have occurred in ancient Egyptian society, in which access to food was a sign of wealth and abundance. Having a larger waistline was supposedly an aspiration as it indicated higher social status.

British Raj from 'From the Black Sea through Persia and India'
Illustration of British India

Bollywood – India’s Film Industry

India’s population has great diversity; in language, culture, beliefs… and skin color. It’s all the more obvious then to notice something a bit strange when you watch a Bollywood movie. There’s a clear preference for lighter skinned actors in an industry that associates beauty with fair skin.

These actors have traditionally been considered more commercially viable and have secured lucrative contract with skin whitening product manufacturers. Who better to promote your skin lightening product in India than a Bollywood megastar?

What impact does this have on the population, millions and millions of whom aren’t light skinned? Many people have shared their stories of not feeling good enough in a society that idolizes light skin. It’s estimated that over 60% of the population in India have used some form of skin lightening treatment with the ultimate goal of becoming ‘fair’.

With the echelons of Bollywood reserved for light-skinned actors, darker-skinned actors have been considered undesirable or not commercially viable. Of course there’ll be a massive market for skin lightening creams if such a prejudice is widely visible. There are stories of darker-skinned actors who have been given roles in blockbuster films, but the roles have been for poorer characters. Or Bollywood has adopted ‘brownface’, the practice of darkening the skin of actors to portray them from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While many of us may be familiar with the term ‘glass ceiling’ – a term used when a member of an underrepresented group breaks into a senior leadership role in the corporate world – Bollywood has its own ‘class ceiling’.

Darlings, released on Netflix on 5th August 2022
Darlings, released on Netflix on 5th August 2022

Where do we go from here?

Skin whitening products are banned in many countries. It will be a constant battle between law enforcement and smugglers to get a leg up. If there is enough demand, people will find a way to get these products into their country. Smugglers often bribe customs officials in the Philippines to allow imports of these products through. But sometimes customs officials let these products through because they feel they are helping the people.

South Africa was the first country in the world to ban skin lightening creams that contain hydroquinone. This was back in 1990 when it was clear that hydroquinone was responsible for serious side effects, and although it is illegal to sell, this hasn’t stopped people from buying and selling skin whitening products. In fact they are still easily found in markets and shops, meeting the demand from people who feel that lighter skin makes them more desirable and helps them become more confident. There is a general understanding that light skin is also associated with opportunity and that the chances of being successful at a job interview are higher if you have lighter skin.

People are calling out companies that sell skin whitening products and the celebrities that endorse them. Companies such as L’Oreal and Unilever, which own multiple beauty brands, have been criticized and it’s increasingly untenable to sell products that claim to make you ‘more white’. Johnson & Johnson decided to stop selling some of their ‘fairness’ products and L’Oreal, Unilever and Proctor & Gamble changed their packaging.

But there is growing awareness about the harmful side effects of these products and there’s also growing awareness about self-worth and loving yourself for who you are. There are many movements that are aligned to being comfortable in your own skin such as body positivity and fat acceptance. People are coming round to the idea that perfection or the ideal look, size, colour, weight doesn’t exist. On social media, there’s often an outpouring of support for people who are body shamed. While sales of skin whitening products are high, society is also countering this by moving in a direction where we accept who we are. It feels as if perfection or an ideal, whatever that may be, is no longer something many people want to aspire to.

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