Skin Lightening Today

In my last post I talked about how women used to use products to look very pale but now tan skin is considered beautiful now. Well, that isn’t true worldwide. In many countries people continue to obsess over pale skin and will go to great lengths to achieve it.

India is one country that places a huge emphasis on pale skin. An article called “Obsession with Light Skin” by Shyam B. Verma that I accessed through my school library database says that paleness is associated with desirability and prestige, which probably originated with the introduction of the caste system and increased with colonialism. In their more traditional culture, marriage is extremely important. Being dark may mean not being able to find a husband.  Arranged marriages are still common in India and the newspaper matrimonial ads frequently say the woman must have fair skin. An article from the Hindustan Times called “India’s Unfair Obsession with Fair Skin” tells the story of a 34 year old woman named Lekha Sarang who was rejected by several men for marriage because of her darker skin. “Initially, I didn’t know why people rejected my proposals. No one would tell me the reason, until one day when I asked one of them. I was 26 then, and this man’s disclosure shattered me. I still thought he was an exception and the reason why the other men didn’t want to marry me was something else, until I asked a second man who also gave me the same answer,” she said. The man who she eventually married, Deven Makwana, was forbidden to do so by his parents who refused to even meet Lekha after seeing a photo of her. The couple eloped and Deven’s parents no longer have any contact with him. India has a massive skin lightening industry. Some countries, including India, have put restrictions on advertisements that are too discriminatory, but worldwide the market continues on making people feel like being fairer will make them happy, beautiful, and successful.

Advertisement for popular skin lightening brand Fair & Lovely

If that wasn’t bad enough, skin lightening products don’t just represent widespread racism and unfair beauty standards but also may be physically dangerous. A New York Times article called “Creams Offering Lighter Skin May Bring Risks” featured the story of a black woman in Brooklyn who frequently used lightening creams to be more accepted. Eventually the products made her skin “so thin that a touch would bruise her face”. She also had visible capillaries and acne. According to the article, the steroids in the creams can also lead to higher blood pressure and blood sugar. Multiple articles I found in my college library database also linked skin lightening products to mercury. The article “Skin-Lightening Practices and Mercury Exposure in the Somali Community” by Amira Adawe and Charles Oberg discusses the Somali population in Minnesota, many of whom use skin lightening products. Seven Somali women were interviewed who said that they mixed together four creams, three of which were found to contain mercury. They applied the creams to their body three times a day including when pregnant and breastfeeding.

Whenever we look back at beauty practices of the past we act horrified that people would ever do those things to themselves. But can we truly say we are so great now? We poison our skin with lightening creams, give ourselves cancer in the tanning bed, displace our organs under corsets, let plastic surgeons cut into us in search of a new perfect self. We have never stopped suffering for beauty.


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