To be white at all costs: skin whitening in India

‘You would be so much beautiful if you were fair-skinned, here take this’. How many have heard this comment? Skin whitening is an established social practice in India and in many other countries and starts at an early age. Skin bleaching is more than a phenomenon, it’s an inherited trauma from the post-colonial period.

Skin whitening at an early age

Donna started to bleach her skin at 9 years old as a result of the bullying of her friends, her classmates and teachers’ pieces of advice. She ended up giving in to social pressure and hated herself for many years. From 9 years old to 22 years old, Donna tried everything to become white. 

skin bleaching donna
Portrait of Donna – ©Aissa Sica

It became such an obsession she even stole money from her dad to buy skin whitening products. According to a study, more than 60 % of Indians had already used or daily use skin whitening cosmetics. Among the top manufacturers, such as Hindustan Lever Ltd, Cavin Kare’s, Fairever, Fair and Lovely achieved in 2017 an annual revenue of 450 millions dollars. Skin whitening cosmetics promise you the best: a job, a wedding, happiness, everything you can dream of, as in this advertisement from Indulekha White Soap, telling the story of a young woman reapplying for a job and being hired after she bleached her skin.

Bollywood and the embodiment of the white beauty

Bollywood actors and actresses are not spared, and the use of these products affects everyone, regardless of gender. Many actresses and actors become brand ambassadors for skin whitening and skin lightening products. As for Bollywood actors, we have for example Hrithik Roshan, Sha Rukh Khan, John Abraham, Shahid Kapoor. 

Among the actresses, we have Nitya Menen, Aishwarya Rai, Genelia D’Souza, Priyanka Chopra, or Sriya Saran in the following ad for Garnier.

In this video, you can see how many actresses when through skin lightening treatment how it is unfortunately endorsed positively.

In spite of this trend, more and more voices are being raised to denounce the endorsement of fair skin in Bollywood. For Ranbir Kapoor, a Bollywood actor, the use of those products reinforced racists stereotypes. An actress, Rangana Ranaut, responding to rumors of a rejected contract with a skin whitening cream brand, as she is concerned with setting a good example for the younger generation and being aware of her responsibilities towards her and her public image. Swara Bhasker actress and committed to various causes was also approached by a skin whitening brand cream. The actress refused, explaining that this obsession with fair/white skin is very problematic in India, an obsession that only increases low self-esteem.

Be fair skin and you will find love

Skin tone also matters when it comes to love relationships. For 6 years, Donna was in love with someone she thought he loved her for who she is. After the studies, Donna and her ex-partner planned to get married.  Her ex-partner introduced her to his parents and talked about their plan to get married. Her ex-partner’s mother disapproved Donna as she is not fair skin. Marriage is still important in India and as the society values the fair skin over the dark skin, dark-skinned people face more difficulties regarding love relationships.

The more you’re fair skin, the more you will find love.

However, many people can not escape the social pressure. Donna recalled one of her family members, who hadn’t left the house for weeks, in the hopes of keeping her skin as fair as possible. She did not recognize her cousin the day of her wedding due to the overuse of skin whitening creams. Matrimonial ads is a flourishing industry in India and many fair-skinned high-qualified grooms and bride are wanted. Consequently, many dark-skinned Indian have difficulties to find a partner and might face more rejection.

Consequences of skin whitening products

Being treated unfairly due to skin color can deeply affect self-esteem. For years, Donna pretended to be allergic to flashing lights to avoid school photographs. As a child, she quickly became aware of colorism and its major impact on her life. Several studies including the one by Maxine Thompson and Verna Keith, two black American researchers, showed that dark-skinned black Americans are more likely to have low self-esteem.

 This lack of self-esteem can quickly lead to cutaneous body image dissatisfaction, a dermatologic disorder ‘defined as the negative perceptions and feelings a person has about their body and is influenced by factors such as body shape and appearance’. Through the use of skin-lightening products, people would believe to feel good about themselves as they lightened/whitened their skin. Nevertheless, due to their negative perceptions and feelings, they still suffer from a lack of self-esteem and keep pursuing a beauty ideal. 

 Over the years, Donna struggled with her low self-esteem, not feeling good about herself. Practicing and teaching Yoga helped her a lot to reconnect with her body and to have a balanced self-image, as the support and the love of her new partner, to regain self-confidence. 

Intergenerational traumas have taken over

History has conditioned the thinking of many Indians who cannot overcome the stigmas and traumas of colonization by the British Empire. The British, claiming to be a superior race, had a duty to control and bully the Indians. Some institutions, restaurants and other public places were forbidden to Indians and dogs.
Indian people were employed in menial jobs. But even among the Indian population, there was a significant difference between light-skinned and dark-skinned people, with light-skinned people being more advantaged and more employed. Over time, skin whitening has become normalized as self-hatred, one of many consequences of colonialism is inherited and internalized. Self-hatred is taught at a young age, as one can see in this video, a mom explaining the best ways to whiten a child’s skin.

A country that has not recovered from its multiple post colonial traumas, and takes advantage of people’s suffering to turn it into a veritable lucrative business.

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Prakriti Sarkar & Dr.ChilkaGhosh, Ethical norms in fairness cream adverstisement, Volume: 7 / Number: 2, Volume: 8/ Number: 1

Business Standard, Abhay Deol names, shames Bollywood’s biggest for endorsing fairness creams, 13/04/2017

Sarah McGuinness & Joanne E Taylor, Understanding Body Image Dissatisfaction and Disordered Eating in Midlife Adults, New Zealand Journal of Psychology , 1/04/2016

Chaya Unnikrishnan , How stars explain endorsing fairness products, DNA, 11/03/2015

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