[Also published at www.yourvox.org]
When drugstores sell creams to lighten your skin, and your vagina, and women buy these things by the thousands, something is wrong.
“Femininity itself has become a brand, a narrow and shrinking formula of commoditised identity which can be sold back to women who have become alienated from their own power as living, loving, labouring beings.”
― Laurie Penny, Meat Market
“Oh, your skin is so beautiful. So white!” said my Nepali friend, Sariya, placing an exaggerated emphasis on almost every word. I looked at her, speechless. I and many of my peers have repeatedly been the object of envy and admiration here in Nepal, simply by virtue of our fairness. In a typical gesture, wizened Tibetan women will brush their cheeks with the backs of their fingers, exclaiming “nying jepo!” (beautiful, Tib.) or smiling to express their approval. Ironically, thousands of Americans flood beaches and tanning salons in the hopes of attaining the same flawless caramel-colored tone that Sariya laments. In Nepal, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, we see the standards of beauty reversed. Fair, clear, white, light—these are the terms of beauty, and of class.
We can trace the obsession with fairness back many centuries before colonialism and British Imperialism in this region. Vedic culture, which originated in Northern and Northwestern India, eventually spread through the subcontinent, bringing with it a lighter-skinned Brahminic class and the foundations of a caste system that exists to this day. According to the creation myth found in the Rigveda (the oldest of the sacred Vedic texts at the core of what we now call Hinduism, but which one Tamang taxi driver aptly termed Brahminism), the primordial man was sacrificed so that the gods could populate the earth. They dismembered him, and from his head they created the Brahmins, the priests and scholars; from his arms they formed the nobles and warriors; from his legs the merchants and traders were made, and from his feet the servants.
In the intervening centuries, caste (far more complex than the four sections of the primordial man’s body) and race have become somewhat convoluted. “Aryan” Brahmins from the Notrth, imposing their religious and social order on Southern, darker-skinned peoples, have often followed racial and cultural prejudice in assigning caste designations. The European preoccupation with fair-skinned beauty that arrived with the East India Company and subsequent British colonialism in the seventeenth century only served to reinforce existing structures of race and power. One might argue that whiteness, as a defining attribute of the new ruling class, acquired even greater value than before. In Nepal, the history of the caste system is even more complicated, but the resulting standards of beauty are similar. Here, in preparation for a wedding, beauty salons will coat the bride’s face with layers of lightening make-up to accomplish a garish (or beautiful, depending on your perspective) final product.
With many Indians and Southeast Asians placing such a premium on fairness, it should come as no surprise that they would take to easy and “safe” skin-lightening options. In 1975, Fair & Lovely launched their newly developed “fairness enhancing” formula, and finally “Indian women found hope in a tube.” On Fair & Lovely’s website, the company’s entire illustrious history, from “The Early Years” to the present day is narrated. The 1980s and 1990s, for instance, saw shifting paradigms “as women started to take charge of their love life.” Fair & Lovely, of course, “supported her every step of the way by giving her a never before fair and beautiful look.” Analysts expect that fairness products will become a $10 billion industry by 2015.
Today, Fair & Lovely hardly stands alone; Garnier, Dove, Vaseline, and many other brands offer their own “skin-lightening,” “anti-tan” and “fairness enhancing” products. Now men, too, can achieve the fair look they always desired, but were too embarrassed to seek out—a legitimately revolutionary development in the Asian beauty market, and hugely profitable. And now, thanks to Eva Beauty, women’s labia can be as fair and beautiful as their faces. Fair & Lovely claims that their formula, based on the lightening effects of Niacinamide, or Vitamin B3, is complete safe. At the very least, bleach does not appear on the ingredients lists of these products, as it purportedly does in some (unsubstantiated). However, uneven application of skin-lightening creams and lotions results in blotchy, chronically dry and unhealthy skin. As young women form a large portion of the consumer base—12 to 14-year-olds made up 13% of the market in 2008, according to one survey—customers will suffer these effects from an unfortunately early age.
Since 2003, the Fair & Lovely Foundation has offered scholarships to girls, working towards economic and social female empowerment. Their entire marketing strategy and self-representation centers around this rhetoric of helping women realize their dreams. Reading through these advertising materials and information about the foundation, I found that I had to confront my own prejudices, which were affecting my analysis of the skin-lightening phenomenon. This is not the first time I have had the experience of being coveted for my skin color, but it never fails to make me uncomfortable, and angry. Why do these fairness products seem so bizarre to me, while America’s tanning obsession dos not? It is probably because I am more accustomed to the latter, but also because skin does become darker in nature, while the reverse is almost never true. Compared to women in America who undergo plastic surgery to make their sexual organs more symmetrical, is Eva Beauty really so shocking? No more shocking, no more disturbing, but Eva Beauty is symptomatic of an entire set of social issues; these issues of caste, inequality, and the subjugation of women to impossible standards of beauty are, in my opinion, extremely problematic. Fair & Lovely has a foundation aimed at empowering women; have I judged it too harshly? Fair & Lovely may “support” women to achieve their dreams, but it does so by selling their beauty back to them, after reinforcing the status quo and teaching girls to believe that fair is lovely and light is superior. I stand by my initial reaction: the skin-lightening industry is damaging; marketing capitalizes on deeply engrained social values and strengthens the association of fairness with success, rather than challenging it.