Magazine

Has skin whitening in India gone too far?

A dark haired woman with fair skin
The new ad features a young woman struggling to attract her man's attention - until she uses the shower gel

For centuries Indian women have been raised to believe that fairness is beauty, and this has given rise to a vast and ever-growing skin-whitening industry - which is now encouraging women to bleach far beyond their hands and face.

It all began with a YouTube video a friend sent me. You need to see this, she said, trying to contain her shock and laughter. And so I pressed play.

It was an advert. A couple sits on a sofa. The husband reads a paper ignoring his beautiful wife: her face, a picture of rejection.

What could this be selling? I wondered, as I watched.

Moments later, this scene of spurned love turned soapy when the leading lady was seen taking a shower.

But - she wasn't using any ordinary shower gel. No, she was using a skin lightening wash, which, as the graphic which then popped up on screen informed the viewer, would lighten her genitals.

After an application of said fairness cream, rose petals appear on the screen, and just like the ending of a good old Bollywood film, the couple are seen happily embracing.

The moral of this story - true love will conquer if your nether regions are a few tones fairer.

That a skin lightening product should exist for such a private area has attracted criticism, shock, and disgust from some quarters of the media.

The desire for lighter skin is nothing new in India. For centuries women in South Asia have been raised with the belief that a fairer complexion equates to beauty.

But this latest development in a new area has reopened the age-old fairness debate.

Lakshmi Menon and Sonam Kapoor
Model Lakshmi Menon's dark skin makes her more sought-after abroad, while actress Sonam Kapoor's pale complexion endears her to Indian advertisers

Should such products be on sale? Is applying bleach to your skin healthy, and what are the psychological effects on girls who are told they're only pretty if they're paler?

It even reached the highest level with one government minister writing to the advertising standards body calling for the product to be withdrawn.

But, despite repeated concerns, the lightening industry is booming, and diversifying. One market research firm even reported that more skin lightening creams are sold in India than Coca Cola.

The market, which initially focused on beauty conscious women, is now pitching to men too.

"The first fairness cream that fights sweat" read the large white letters on a bus stop billboard I passed.

It was accompanied by a photo of one of Bollywood's actors of the moment, John Abraham, his chiselled face promising fragrant fairness to all who buy the product.

If those variants weren't considered enough, you can also find deodorants for fairer underarms and talcum powders for whiter skin.

Advertisers specialising in this field, must spend hours devising new campaigns for their products.

"Do you think twice before wearing certain clothes because they don't seem to suit your body's uneven skin tone?" asked one half-page advert in a respected newspaper.

"Notice how the colour of your hands is different to the colour of your face?" asked another.

It seems illogical that such prejudices should continue to exist in modern day India, but they do.

One wannabe actress told me she failed to get parts in films because directors bluntly told her she was too black.

You only have to look at posters and ads in India to see glamorous Bollywood stars who, thanks to a bit of graphics software, have dramatically lighter skin tones - with others going the whole hog and endorsing the products.

These are the stars who are worshipped by so many in India, and if many of them are complicit too, then it's fair to assume that this industry will only continue to grow.

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