A million dollar business that emerged out of selling the concept of a singular ideal of beauty is caving into the recent pressure and vocal dialogue that has evolved around colour. We in Asia are familiar with extensive promotions of skin lotions that supposedly make dark girls fair. In adverts, there is always a‘dull’ girl sulking.A girl that stands before the mirror lacking confidence, with failure staring in her face. A friend reassures herewith a solution.The transformation is so phenomenal, that the now‘fair’ protagonist is promptly noticed even by the executives on the job interview panel. Being white therefore is dressing for success.Absurd as it may seem, skin lightening is a multi-million dollar industry that thrives on exploiting women’s(and men’s) insecurities concerning their colour, a state induced by the industry through a sustained advertising campaign that engages in shaming people with darker tones. One cannot deny that our cultures have always favoured lighter skin, but never has it been so vulgarised as to dictate it as the standard for beauty and success.With increased opposition and activism, one leading multinational has promised to make changes, followed, hopefully by others.
But this craze for fairer skin seems to have been a perpetual drive among women. For instance, consider the significance of fairy tales that we grew up listening to;they captivated us and captured our imagination.This whole hoo-hah reminds me of the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A middle-aged woman, utterly insecure at the sight of her step-daughter burgeoning into a beautiful maiden is literally stalking a ‘magic mirror’ to reassure her about her waning looks.The gold standard for beauty according to this fairy tale is fair skin. In retrospect, the absurdity of this tale is beyond comprehension, more so in the current context of colourism. Perverse at best, one cannot imagine the damage such a story could do to the mind of a growing child. The ‘happily ever after’ ending is fascinating, but the moral is far beyond the perennial good over evil trajectory. The two protagonists, the step mom and the model stand before the mirror, resenting what they see.
Is there anything empowering for a woman who uses these products? Firstly, one has to look at the people who endorse them. A-list celebrities who convincingly show the transformation are people that epitomise success and fame and wealth, and such endorsements promote an awareness that associates success, among other things, with the colour of your skin. Endorsements by celebrities for oodles of money thrashes all scruples about values and mores, in fact it temporarily blinds them to the reality that they are contributing to the existing unfair practice of evaluating and valuing people for their colour. They also falsely lead women to believe that using them can be the path to confidence-building. By tying success to skin colour, such as getting a job or a spouse, these advertisements compromise the fundamental human feeling of self-worth. I can only imagine the extent to which such products and their endorsements damage people’s personalities and drive them to feeling stressed and anxious, because the industry and the media is endorsing and promoting an already existential social phenomenon that glorifies lighter skin, only this time more intensely. Consumers are deceived into a utopian panacea that persuades them to use a celebrity endorsed lightening cream with a promise of elevating them to the same standards. This cannot be empowering, because it ties the individual to an unrealistic standard of beauty, which becomes too demanding, but still most people succumb to its lure. Secondly, using these products, women believe, will give them the acceptance and visibility that they desire and which the product proclaims to transfer to the user.
There is a problem with depiction as well. They lack diversity, obviously, so the central character is thin, tall and fair. The benchmark is to exceed beyond one’s ‘normal’ look to match the standard. This can be too dangerous a trend, because in time it will spurn a generation that will lack self-esteem because they dislike their body and their colour, leading to mental and physical ill-health.
Trying to attain the unattainable image trapped inside magazines and on billboards will drive individuals to the edge of absurdity. Who said that physical perfection is the standard for success? Ask someone like Kasturi Challaraja Wilson, the first female Group CEO of a conglomerate in Sri Lanka, her story will certainly be the story of the ‘normal woman’ who has risen through the ranks, despite the glass ceiling that everyone laments about. No amount of lightening lotion would have got her there. But, she’ll have plenty to witness about the goodness of hard work, action and intellect.
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardane