Hannah McKenzie/the Gauntlet

Far beyond a bleached blonde

Skin lightening in Asia

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Flip through the pages of any Indian newspaper and you will find a section dedicated to matchmaking, where profiles of young, single men and women are placed in order to attract a potential husband or wife. These profiles are usually posted at the request of family members, who aim to present their children in the best way possible. One striking characteristic of these profiles is that many of them proudly describe the person as "fair," before listing their education, religion or body type. In India, as is the case in many Asian countries, fair skin is part of the beauty standard, against which all women are expected to measure up. While this standard has been around for centuries, its enforcement has increased recently.

A crop of beauty products has entered the market, all claiming to lighten the skin of the user by several shades in a short period of time. Many of these are manufactured by multinational corporations, such as Hindustan Lever (part of Unilever), which produces the common skin-bleaching cream, Fair & Lovely. It is interesting to note that Unilever is also responsible for Axe body spray and, ironically enough, Dove, of "Campaign for Real Beauty" fame. Naturally, these companies have sparked intense controversy and face accusations of enforcing racism and discrimination within Indian society. Yet many are quick to dismiss these claims, likening the Indian practice of skin-bleaching to the Western practice of tanning. There are indeed some similarities between the two practices. Both are reputed to be harmful to the skin and both are based, at least in part, on classist stereotyping.

In India, as in many predominantly agrarian societies, pale skin is traditionally associated with wealth, indicating the ability to stay indoors and avoid working in the sun, unlike a labourer or a farmer. In North America, and increasingly in Europe, tanned skin and a very thin body comprise the beauty standard for women, reflecting the look of many wealthy, California-based celebrities, ever-present in the international media. However, the similarities end there.

Consider the following commercial for Fair & Lovely: a young, dark-skinned woman forlornly laments the fact that she cannot get a job. When she tries to apply for a position at an upscale beauty shop, she is rejected on the grounds that the company is a "modern beauty company." The woman later finds a tube of Fair & Lovely and within weeks she is happily employed and light-skinned. Another commercial features a woman nervously preparing for a job interview. She comes out of the interview successful-- after lightening her face by several shades. Such discrimination against pale-skinned individuals in the West would be highly unlikely. In India, though, discrimination against dark-skinned individuals is very common. Many women and, to a lesser extent, men, are refused employment due to their skin colour. Many consider a woman with darker skin to be unmarriageable. This discrimination, deeply-rooted in Indian society, is the product of regional tensions, colonial rule and even the caste system, and is only being exacerbated through the sale and promotion of products like Fair & Lovely.

The makers of Fair & Lovely send a clear message to women. Not only is a woman worth her appearance and nothing else, but a fair-skinned woman, as Western-looking as possible, is overall more likely to be successful in life. Should a woman face discrimination due to her dark skin and ethnic features, it is her fault for possessing those features. Taking this startlingly clear message of sexism and racism into account, it is sad to think of how multinationals see this as yet another opportunity for profit.