Saturday, 25 September, 2021; 8:48 pm
At present ‘Fair app’ is a buzzing app to catch the fancy of many of users in fairness products. What is fascinating about the ‘beauty model’ in the screen is that they are inevitably several pounds lighter and several shades whitish than their actual selves. Most advertisements always show dark-skinned women as unhappy and under confident with both their professional and personal life in the doldrums. Fair women on the other hand are always shown as successful and happy. Becoming fair, then, can literally transform your life.
Racial attitudes and stereotypes have always existed in the world generally and in South Asian societies in particular. However, the recent rise in use of skin lighteners is not merely the result of colonialism and its impact in spreading the notion of ‘white supremacy’ but rather is a consequence of the penetration of multinational capital and Western consumer culture all over the world (Glenn, 2008). This practice grows as the spread in the influence of these forces grows.
The word ‘fair’ has two meanings in the English language. It can refer to impartiality or to light-coloured skin or hair. Both impartiality and light-coloured/light-hued looks as an expression of beauty are highly valued. In the whole world across cultures, a relatively lighter skin tone is associated with desirable or highly valued characteristics — serenity, chastity, purity etc. These in turn are presumed to be reflected in women of particular groups; those groups that claim a higher status. Thus one’s skin tone also acts as a sign — a sign of belonging to a particular group (Bordieu, 1984). So it is assumed that the ‘upper class’ would be lighter skinned as they did not engage in work that involved exposure to the sun. Already present, these notions were strengthened during the colonial rule where the Europeans in order to prove themselves superior accorded a higher status to those of lighter hue. And the British describes Dravidian women are unattractive.
In this day and age, desirability of a ‘fair skin’ is internalised at a very early age. The ‘skin’ colour found in crayons and colour pencils is almost always pale and pink hued, despite the presence of several skin tones. Using these colours and purchasing other mass produced items such as dolls that are usually pale may make children think that they are not ‘normal’, because their skin does not look like ‘skin’. Skin is now a commodity. It has a utility wherein it protects the tissues of our body and also from its aesthetic value which springs from culturally constructed notions.
In today’s time, it also has an exchange value determined by the amount of labour (time and energy put in the application of skin lightening products) one puts into it. For instance: the rise of various kinds of parlour and skin clinic. Their advertisement is also very attractive — ‘come closer to us and see the world through your beauty.’ So women can get both rich husbands and good jobs on the basis of their skin tone. Lighter hued skin is essentially symbolic capital which affects one’s life chances (Glenn, 2008). Light-skin colour compensates for what has called ‘status inconsistencies’ in marriages, as well as inadequate dowry, lack of education or employment. In Bangladesh, beautiful girls’ (fair toned) demands are more and marriage market is in favour of their fair colour. The groom side in many cases does not demand anything in terms of dowry if the girl’s skin colour is fair. It is not only the scenario of Bangladesh but also all over the world; ‘fair phobia’ is such a dominating symbol. Therefore, buying fairness creams and using them can be seen as an investment made in order to achieve racial capital that helps in getting a spouse, employment above all a nice and healthy leaving. The human body’s turning into a commodity facilitates the growth of racial capital (Hunter, 2011).
What’s interesting here is that the makers of these products tend to be based in Europe (Unilever and L’Oreal) and the users are mostly from South Asian region. In fact, Unilever has introduced ranges of beauty products especially to the female of South Asia. Its mission is to ‘add vitality of life’ where people ‘feel good’, ‘look good’ and ‘get more out of life’. Thus in Bangladesh ‘Fair and Lovely’, Lux soap opera and ‘Veet’ are the main sponsored in widely televised ‘Veet beauty contest’ or ‘super star contest’ which is supposed to discover the most beautiful woman of the country. If one is to observe the winners of the pageant over the years it becomes clear that, being beautiful means being ‘fair’ (Glenn, 2008).
Advertisements reflect and create powerful cultural narratives of how happiness is achieved by consuming specific products (Saraswati, 2010). So use of fairness products is not to look or turn into a Caucasian, rather it is done to look like lighter skinned (and economically well off) people of their own societies. As a result then, the sale of Fair & Lovely is better in South Asian region than in any of European countries. The idea is that by using these products not only is your skin becoming lighter, but also you are internalising independence, modernity and success of these women. Hence, becoming fair, then can literally transform your life in terms of freedom and money. The very fact is that ‘fairness’ and ‘whiteness’ creams are being continued to be advertised that shows how the larger issues of racism and colourism have been subordinated to interests of the market. White beauty becomes the norm and a dark skin tone becomes exotic. It is strange that in a country like Bangladesh where majority of the people do have a relatively darker skin, Angelina Jolie, Katrina Kaif or Kareena Kapoor remain a conventional beauty.
However, fairness creams have now targeted men also. So men are not ‘Fair and Lovely’, rather they are ‘Fair and Handsome’. These creams then don’t remove gender stereotypes, but rather reinforce them. So men should not use their sister’s fairness creams because they make them unmanly and also because since men have ‘tougher’ skin, they need products specially designed for them. So rather than telling people to be comfortable in their own skin, new avenues to invest and earn money is achieved through commoditisation of men as well.
Thus it can be observed how global capital networks and a culture of consumerism feed on existing racial stereotypes to create a scenario where one is constantly reminded of one’s inferiority due to having a particular skin colour. The idea of achieving happiness and prosperity is linked with becoming ‘lighter’ that can only be possible through consumption of commodities that aim to ‘lighten’ our skin colour. One’s faith in this idea and products is constantly reinforced through advertisements and production of other goods that support the ‘white is beautiful/ideal’ notion.
Sultana Tania is currently working as a Sponsorship Officer at SOS Children Village Dhaka, Bangladesh. Before joining SOS she worked as teacher in Queens College and South Point College. She also worked for Action Aid India and Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies for a short time. She received her Postgraduate in Sociology from South Asian University, New Delhi, India and Graduation from NUB, Bangladesh.
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