Society today is unapologetically obsessed with physical appearance. Our vision of what is conventionally ‘beautiful’ is skewed and influenced by the digital enhancement that dominates our television screens, billboards and shop windows. This doesn’t stop at pursuing size zero, or longing for that perfectly proportioned nose; the latest strive for perfection is skin whitening, predominately by Asian and Afro-Caribbean individuals, in order to obtain a lighter complexion.
The desire to bleach the skin stems from the Asian cultural perception that to be white is to be beautiful and affluent, most likely as a result of the British colonisation of India in the early 19th century. This perception has carried on into the 21st century, with famous Bollywood actresses favouring distinctly Caucasian blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin, and black, female icons such as Beyoncé Knowles and Rebecca Ferguson being similarly digitally transformed to look paler.
So, what are the obvious problems with this perception? Primarily, it encourages more Asian and Afro-Caribbean people to use skin-whitening products. Ethical and racial issues aside for one moment, the health risks are pertinent. Sky News recently reported the unlicensed selling of illegal, toxic creams, particularly one containing a prescription-only steroid that is used to treat skin disorders such as psoriasis and eczema. Illegal products have more rapid whitening effects, yet are not without consequence; they can cause uneven colour loss and permanent skin bleaching, amongst other side effects.
If, however, safe products are being used, then do we still have a significant problem on our hands? I spoke to 3rd year student Amin Patel about the potential positive implications of using creams: “The reasons for someone to want to use such products can be quite serious on a psychological level…if someone is constantly insulted growing up with a dark complexion, or has dark marks from scarring that makes them feel that they look less attractive, then this can have quite a negative impact on their lifestyle. Skin whitening products can be a great confidence boost which will give the user greater self-esteem for all areas in their life.”
However, skin whitening is not always a personal decision; for some celebrities, it is a marketing strategy enforced on them by others. In 2010, renowned Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was enraged after her complexion was digitally whitened on the front cover of Elle magazine without her prior consent. Removing the element of personal choice, surely we are left with a case of racial prejudice and an out-dated stereotype of beauty that despite our multi-cultural society, seems little advanced from the colonial past.
Another third year student, Kavita Patel, tells me: “…the fact that [celebrities] want to use skin whitening products may give the impression that fair skin is more attractive, which could potentially have an effect on the self-esteem and self-perception of darker skinned women.” This societal pressure to aspire to look a certain way could lead to said individuals using skin whitening creams, which could potentially have a psychologically or physically detrimental effect on them, hence triggering a violent cycle of self-disapproval.
Kavita goes on to say, however, that, “Surely [skin whitening] is just the same as the thousands of people who fake tan every day? And even worse, those who use sun beds and severely increase their risk of cancer.” Hence, the desire to lighten the skin can be seen as an example of the deeply embedded, clever advertising strategy to convince the individual that they simply are not good enough, and must strive for change in order to achieve perfection, i.e. “Your eyelashes aren’t long enough, so buy this volumising mascara.”
Cosmetic perfection is something that dominates our consumerist society today. Although there is nothing wrong with adhering to cosmetic trends such as skin whitening if it is done safely, and the advantage of building self confidence is evident, there is no denying that this outdated stereotype of beauty stifles ethnic individualism. In a country that claims to encourage ethnic diversity, perhaps advertisers should celebrate and appreciate this merit, rather than turning the contrast up on Adobe in a white-wash frenzy.