The insidious nature of skin lightening creams, and how they contribute to racial injustice as told by Brown women in SG

The insidious nature of skin lightening creams, and how they contribute to racial injustice as told by Brown women in SG

Calling for change

Text: Cheryl Lai-Lim

Image: Instagram | @fentybeauty
Image: Instagram | @themelaninmissy
Image: Instagram | @labyrinthave

Picture this: all your troubles— from your love life (or lack of), your career (again, or lack of), to strained family issues — whatever difficulties you're struggling with, it can all be solved with a skin whitening cream. This is the storyline perpetuated by some of the largest cosmetic companies, especially those located in South Asia, Middle East and Africa. The skin lightening market in these places run rampant, filled with the assurance of a 'better life' with lighter complexions.

How skin whitening products contributes to colourism and racism

Skin whitening products are, oftentimes, bleaching creams that have been touted to help lighten skin tones. By and large, most of these creams don't work as proclaimed. Products that genuinely do lighten the skin often contain toxic ingredients like mercury, hydroquinone and corticosteroids. Whilst such harmful products are illegal and banned in several countries, many back alley markets still offer formulas with such ingredients.

The Black Lives Matter campaign has helped shed further light on this topic, causing leading cosmetic companies that sell skin whitening products to change their stance. Amidst growing backlash, Johnson & Johnson declared that they will stop selling skin whitening creams. Unilever announced the removal of the terms 'fair/fairness', 'white/whitening', and 'light/lightening' from their products and communication. Hindustan Unilever announced in July that their flagship skincare brand, 'Fair & Lovely', will henceforth be known as 'Glow & Lovely', whilst the men's range will be re-branded to 'Glow & Handsome'.

However, these announcements drew flak, with many expressing that the re-brand was simply a performative gesture. Whilst the products are being marketed differently (especially on social media), a large part of the ingredients in these creams are still kept the same. "Re-branding is fundamentally a marketing decision and the goal here is clearly to improve the image of the product at face-value while ensuring that it is still a profitable avenue for Unilever," says Deesha Menon, 24, research assistant. "We cannot trust businesses who co-opt the language of social justice, inclusivity, and equality, but place profit-making before accountability and the 'values' they seemingly market themselves on. This isn't just performative, it's also insidious: unless their formula has changed (which it hasn't), they are ultimately still the same skin-lightening cream they were before."

"These brands portray that being light skinned is superior, and that everyone should be as of that same skin colour. This will definitely skew and negatively impact the minds of the younger generation as they will grow up with a preconceived ideology that having light skin is better. In reality, your skin, race and religion shouldn't matter," agrees S Sangeeta, 22, a member of the cabin crew.

"The intention is still there. The creams are still getting people to whiten their skin," Natasha*, 19, a nursing student, concurs. "It just seems so performative. If they really do have the intention to support the fight against colourism, they should just pull the products off the shelves."

A deep-rooted issue

South Asia has had a longstanding issue with colourism, which can be traced back to the ideology of the caste system. The system has dictated many a mindset for years, leading to discriminatory behaviour that places those with lighter skin on a pedestal in comparison to those with darker skin. "Growing up, I've always been told I was too "dark". My parents were always trying to get me to lighten my skin. While they were well-meaning and didn't have any bad intentions, I don't think they realised how much it impacted my self-confidence," shares Nisha M, 31, a freelancer. "It wasn't until much later when I learn to accept my skin."

"I've always been aware of how dark my skin is, even for a person of colour," Ari*, 29, echoes the sentiment. "Everything seemed harder. Making friends was hard, especially when I was younger. Shopping was hard. I wanted to wear white dresses or pastel tops but was always conscious of whether such clothing will make my dark skin appear darker. Working was hard too. At my first workplace, I was really lonely. Even now, at my current workplace, my co-workers are polite but distant, and I get the feeling I can't 'fit in'. It sucks, but at least I've got others who are more accepting."

Indeed, the fight for equal skin representation is still ongoing even today. Just recently, a new Bollywood song incited rage for its lyrics, with the song bewilderedly referencing Beyoncé, and the lyrics suggesting that the global superstar will be insecure of a 'fair-skinned lady' based off her skin tone. Netflix's Indian Matchmaking often tosses around the idea that 'fair skin' is part of a candidate's good qualities, while Italian fashion house, Marni, recently pulled back a controversial campaign featuring dark-skinned models in chains, amongst other imagery that had implications of colonial and slavery stereotypes. "It's not fair, it really isn't, but that's the way it was," Nisha tells us. "In the past, those with light skin are viewed as more beautiful and powerful. Those with dark skin are seen as lower class. But the thing is, we're all human. That was the mindset back then, but it isn't now. Unfortunately, these companies aren't helping in that regard."

Changing the narrative

It isn't just cosmeceutical companies that are changing their tune. In the wake of recent global protests against racial injustice, Bollywood actresses — who were once brand ambassadors of such products and featured in commercials promoting skin-whitening creams — have done an about-face as well. Actresses like Priyanka Chopra (Quantico, Baywatch), Disha Patani (Bharat, Kung Fu Yoga) and Sonam Kapoor (Neerja, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo) have posted on social media accounts declaring their support for social justice against racism and colourism. But many view their change of heart as a hollow gesture. "While I'm all for changing for the better, I can't help but feel that their actions are selective activism. It's kinda hypocritical of them, seeing that they recommend and promote fairness creams while supposedly opposing racism. It doesn't work that way," says Natasha.

Sejal Bagaria, 23, a freelance emcee and content creator shares. "I feel so strongly about this and it's just so sad. There are so many Bollywood stars, who not only promote these brands, but actually (do) get skin bleaching. I think it is just so, so hypocritical of them and sad.

I feel like Indian beauty has been so tainted by this industry of Fair & Lovely and all these whitening products. I'm glad that there are so many other actresses now, like Radhika Apte. She's a gorgeous, dark-skinned Indian actress and she's not as mainstream as the others, but you can see she really embraces her Indian skin. And also, just on other social media platforms like TikTok, there are so many dark-skinned beautiful Indian girls that are being praised for their skin. It's just so nice to see. I'm considered a light-skin North Indian, but even then, growing up, I was exposed to things like turmeric where it'll make my skin lighter, and I was always told not to stay too long in the sun, because you'll get dark, don't play tennis because you'll get dark...There are all these ideals that these actresses are not helping to debunk, but I'm just glad that the industry is slowly changing, that media is slowly changing, and I just hope it continues to go in the right direction."

"While I think it's fine to have once supported something or espoused an opinion that you now regret, they are fundamentally still a part of (and profit from) Bollywood, which is an immensely colourist industry. So again, this comes back to performative activism and centring profit, favourable public perception, and 'woke' politics over real values," says Menon. "I'm not the best person to speak about how Bollywood has contributed to decades of colourism because I'm not an avid viewer, but I would recommend taking a look at the #BollywoodSoWhite hashtag on Instagram."

The battle ahead

Whilst the industry has made progressive advancements against racist beauty ideals, there's still much work to be done. The conversation surrounding skin lightening needs to grow even further. Sangeeta shares, "As much as I want to see even more inclusivity in the industry regarding skin colour, I can't deny the fact that there has been much progress in recent years. Aside from that, I also believe the industry could also create content that addresses the issue of toxic colourism so as to increase the awareness of how this has affected the mentality of the younger generation."

Menon is looking for more progress when it comes to inclusive beauty. "In terms of improvement I think the answer is really simple — de-centralise light skinned representation. We all want to see ourselves represented in the media, but the fact is that some people have been historically represented and revered for much longer, while others have been marginalised and looked down upon.

The beauty industry can remedy this by showcasing all types of people — different skin tones, colours, textures and so on. Fenty Beauty, for example, has done an amazing job with diversifying skin colour but I have yet to see a model with large pores or acne. There is massive room for improvement all across the board, and we desperately need to expand on our definition, understanding, and recognition of what it means to look and feel beautiful."

In the steps towards progression, Ari hopes to see the beauty industry take a stand. "How about the removal of all skin whitening products instead of just re-branding? That could be a start. These products are just sending a wrong message. Besides the removal of fairness creams, I would also hope to see makeup for people of colour being conventional. It shouldn't be a surprise that brands like Fenty come up with foundation shades for all skin tones. That should be normal, and the beauty industry should make it the standard."

Beyond the beauty industry, a call has been made for the Bollywood industry to reflect as well. "I think right now, the beauty industry is doing a lot which I really appreciate. For example, Rare Beauty, Fenty Beauty. They're beauty brands with 40 — 50 foundation shades, which is so nice. I think with makeup, as a woman of colour, it is so hard to find a foundation for my skin colour. I always had to mix things, but now finally, I am able to find and that's great," says Bagaria. "But I do think that the Bollywood industry has so much more work to do. The industry shouldn't be comparing skin colours to begin with. If an actress is fair and beautiful, it doesn't take away someone who's dark-skinned and beautiful as well. The industry, I think, should stop comparing female actresses."

"Yeah, the Bollywood industry is definitely one of the reasons why there are so many of these ideas still around," says Nisha. "It's a big industry, so changing everyone's mindset is not going to be easy, but I believe that we can do it. Everyone deserves to be represented fairly, especially in the media and on screens. No one deserves to be discriminated because of their skin colour."

*Certain names have been switched or last names have been dropped as requested to grant anonymity