Is it Fair? : The Woes of the Skin Bleaching Phenomenon

A recent expose’ on the current affairs programme All Angles (which I am pretty sure everyone saw), explored the phenomenon of skin bleaching in Jamaica. The topic of skin bleaching has been a hot button issue, especially during the era of neo-colonialism when pan Africanism, Garveyism or Black Pride took centre stage in the west. But is it only those of African descent who grapple with this inherent need to bleach to feel beautiful or accepted? According to western media that seems to be the case but careful research shows otherwise.

What is Skin Bleaching?

Before we venture into the various cultures where the skin bleaching phenomena is prevalent, one must ask what is skin bleaching. According to the online help site skin bleaching is defined as …the process of using bleaching agents to lighten the skin’s pigment. It may be used to lighten areas of the skin darkened by hyper pigmentation, pregnancy or acne. It is also controversially used in African and Asian cultures to lighten whole sections of the skin.”

Once again, the continent of Africa is mentioned as one of the highest perpetrators of offences against the skin but what of Asia, their southern counterparts?

Skin Bleaching in Asia

Asia, one of the continents grossly affected by British colonialism, is also avid users of bleaching and skin lightening creams. Based on research, it was found that countries like China, India and Taiwan were the greatest users of these products.

In China, particularly Hong Kong which was once a British colony, the desire for lighter skin is rampant in society with patrons willing to do any and everything for lighter and whiter skin. In fact, skin lightening industry in Asia earns over US $13 billion annually. In an article published by entitled “SKIN DEEP: Dying to be white”, it was found that two thirds of men wanted women with fairer skin while half of women wanted men with a lighter skin tone; It is however important to note that China previously had an obsession with lighter skin long before the British takeover; during their Imperial history. There was a well-known saying “one white will cover up three ugliness”. This is of course extremely ironic since Asians are generally of a light skin complexion. Well, according to their history it was believed that having a lighter complexion meant that you were wealthy enough to stay inside all day while being dark meant that you were forced, because of your financial constraints, to work in the rice paddies to survive. As a result, heavy ad campaigns using pale models to advertise skin bleaching are promoted in their media causing these products to fly off the shelves like hot bread. Despite the possible health effects, citizens seem unconcerned about what could happen to them.

A similar situation exists in India where advertisements featuring products guaranteed to lighten the skin flood the media causing eager customers to stand in line to acquire these products. Some of these products include “Fair and Lovely”, Enami’s “Fair and handsome” and “Clean and Dry “which all have many ad campaigns throughout Indian media”.

Ironically, the issue of skin prejudice was brought to light (no pun intended) with the crowning of Nina Davuluri, the first American of East Indian decent to be crowned Miss America. The racially charged outrage did not come from the racist American white supremacists who most likely were never exposed to people of other cultures but from her own people who believed that she wasn’t fair enough. The fairness campaign, as shown in a CNN Newsroom report is immense and unashamed with ads in marriage/matrimony newspapers asking for ‘fair’ brides and grooms. In an independent documentary done by a student identified as Dia, it was found that it was widely believed that someone of a dark or ‘dusky’ complexion may find it difficult, if not impossible to find a spouse. So this seems to be a problem that runs through the very core of the society and may be inextricable from the existence of the people.

Possible Health Risks

As exposed in the All Angles expose’, bleaching has some possible negative implications on the skin including cancer. This is due to the products that were included in these creams, the main perpetrators being hydroquinone and mercury. Hydroquinone is the chemical product that tends to cause the blue-black patches of hyper pigmentation on the face after excessive and prolonged use that is almost incurable. Recent tests have also shown that this chemical can be a potential carcinogen and can have even worst effects.

We don’t have to talk about mercury now do we? Well, one of the earliest introductions to the potency of mercury was in the 1800’s when it was felt that makers experienced major psychiatric breaks due to their excessive exposure to mercury coining the term ‘mad-as-a-hatter’. Therefore, the excessive amounts of mercury that has to be placed in these products to make them more effective exposes its users to changes in their psychological make-up, the nervous system and the kidneys.

Legal Recourse

So, based on all these facts how can the courts and legislation prevent the use of these harmful and seemingly addictive chemicals? The law definitely cannot alter the minds of people and teach them to love themselves but it can mitigate against the use of these substances by banning them. Countries like the United States and the European Union have banned products with more than 2 per cent hydroquinone or mercury above the FDA approved amounts. They also require packagers to state the ingredients on their product listings. In Asia, Africa and India there is much to be desired. The solution is simple; teach our people of non-Caucasian heritage to love themselves through ad campaigns and education, ban these products from the stores and over the counter and reset the standards of beauty to match those of the ordinary citizens, teach our children to love themselves through re-socialisation.

Make life for all people, no matter what skin tone equivocal (did you notice that I didn’t use the word ‘fair’?)

Read more: Independent Documentary on skin bleaching in India

(c) Camilla Parris-Campbell 2013


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