Pale imitations and the trouble with skin whitening

By Khaled Diab

Why is fairness so coveted in societies with darker ?

November 2008

Physical beauty is most certainly skin deep but, given the superficiality of , it carries a sharp edge which can cut both the beautiful and the not-so. People's looks have the tendency to get under their skin and bore deep into their psyche, leaving many with psychological scars.

The cosmetics industry thrives and prospers on society's elusive quest for physical ‘perfection'. One global fixation is on skin tone. Europeans flock to the sun in search of a tan or, failing that, bake under solariums, squeeze the bronze out of a bottle or have it sprayed on.

In hotter climes, many shun the sun and seek out the shade. There is a premium on paleness and millions turn to skin whitening products in their quest for the perfect fair complexion. India is near the top of the global league when it comes to the adoration of fair skin, with fairness products representing some 60% of the Indian cosmetics market.

This is attested to by the sheer range of products promising to bring a bright new dawn to your dark complexion. Billboards all over the country carry images – which reminded us of those “evolution of man” drawings – showing the same face in progression, from dark to light.

The best-known, biggest-selling and most-established of these branded skin whiteners goes by the disingenuous name of Fair and Lovely, as if there were a necessary correlation between the two conditions, with a range of slogans, including “the power of beauty”. Sensing a massive growth market, numerous international firms – such as L'Oreal, Revlon and Yves Saint-Laurent – have launched their own fairness products in recent years.

And the various brands unashamedly play up the social stigma attached to dark complexions and tap into the aspirational hopes associated with lighter skin: from finding a marriage partner to getting ahead in the workplace. In one Fair and Lovely ad, an attractive, middle-class woman admits that “an obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin”.

Needless to say, after using the magical potion, the young woman manages to land herself a job as a hotshot journalist reporting out of – a country where the Fair and Lovely rage has also caught on in recent years. Another ad exploits to the max the notion of darkness being a low class thing by featuring a dark-skinned young villager who can't seem to get ahead in the big city until…

Although women make up the lion's share of the skin whitening market, perhaps as a strange sign of growing gender equality, a niche for men has been found, with Fair and Lovely's release of its Menz brand – apparently designed for men's rugged, outdoor lifestyles.

Being a great believer in natural beauty, I find the result of skin whitening very unsatisfactory and, given that many products contain bleaching agents and hydroquinone, the consequences could also potentially be dire.

It's often easy to spot who has been using these products: the skin certainly looks paler but, rather than being fair, it takes on a kind of pasty, grey hue. The quest for a fair complexion also affects people's behaviour. For instance, one woman in India, shielding her head from the hated sun, frenziedly tried to push past my wife in a women-only queue in a bid to escape the burning rays as if they would melt her face off.

So, what is behind this phenomenon?

One explanation is internally directed . In India, and other post-colonial states, European colonists left behind a certain level of self-loathing in which things that are seen as ‘local' are regarded as inferior and things that are seen as western are seen as superior. One manifestation of this is when people aspire to look and act more western – and a counter-reaction is when people consciously and artificially go back to their ‘roots'. In Egypt, this is known as ‘the foreigner complex'.

To my mind, this interpretation only partly explains the phenomenon, and actually works much better in a mixed-race society with a history of racial discrimination, such as the United States. African-Americans are profligate users of skin whiteners because they feel that being as pale as possible boosts their chances of getting ahead in life. That said, every drop of African blood makes you ‘black' in the eyes of society. Barack Obama, for example, is always described as African-American, even though he is mixed race and was mostly raised by his white mother.

India's obsession with fairness, although probably strengthened by the British presence, certainly predates European colonialism. For example, the people featured in Mughal and Indian miniature paintings tend to be far paler than the Indian average – unless they happen to be the blue-skinned Krishna! Of course, this could partly be a throwback to earlier forms of colonialism, in which paler northern Indians and Central Asians dominated darker southern Indians.

“Darkness is a curse in our culture – it is likened to ‘evil'… Even Hindu gods are depicted as light-skinned contrary to texts that write about their androgyny and darker tones,” wrote one Indian blogger.

Although I find that the association of darkness with ‘evil' has more to do with the fear of night than skin tone, what these traditional depictions reflect is the ancient class association linked to lighter skin.

Part of the traditional status of the wealthy is connected to them not dirtying their hands working the land or engaging in heavy outdoor labour, and a clear sign of this was to have a paler skin than the plebs and peasants.

That explains why in Elizabethan England women, including the queen herself, risked their lives by applying ‘ceruse', a mixture of white lead and vinegar. Today, with outdoor lifestyles associated with wealth and holidays abroad a status symbol, sun-kissed skin is what Europeans often aspire to.

There are signs that India is slowly shaking off its old attitudes to beauty, particularly in the country's more cosmopolitan cities, and more and more people are becoming vocal in their defence of dark as beautiful. One ad for a new magazine we saw in Delhi features a woman saying: “I'm not fair but I'm lovely”.

Even in India's dream factory, Bollywood, voices are being raised against the pale ideal, which Hindi cinema has helped perpetuate. Film star Akshay Kumar blasted the notion of skin-lightening, and expressed his view that “dusky”, too, is beautiful.

Here's to hoping that, one day, the only fairness that will matter is that of mind.

A shorter version of this column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 6 November 2008. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by , Khaled's life has been divided between the and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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