Whiter skin, at what cost?


Pretty Rahman

If you haven’t noticed, beauty products are everywhere. They fill shopping centres, boutique stores, even chemists. I wouldn’t be surprised if the retail laws and regulations stated: if you sell chewing gum, you shall sell cosmetics too! And if by chance you do escape the constant bombardment of shiny plastic bottles (say, you lock yourself in a public toilet cubicle), you’re STILL confronted by advertising urging you to add to your growing collection of cosmetics and other easily-bought-on-impulse items. It’s no wonder then that women (and men) are influenced by the beauty industry.

Now, for the large part, the population generally agrees with the advertised image of attractiveness. But it’s important to remember that this standard doesn’t remain constant on a global scale. Different cultures covet varying forms of beauty. Scan the shelves at Priceline in summer and you’ll find a dizzying selection of self-tanning lotions and potions (and creams… and gels… and even powders). But change countries and peruse the beauty section in India- skin whitening creams dominate the shelves.

When I was visiting the home of Bollywood earlier this year, the amount of time and money spent in marketing these products was astonishing. It seemed like the TV shows were fit between ads urging consumers to purchase this lightening cream or that whitening lotion. Advertisers were clutching at straws to compete amongst the hoard of these products that supposedly made skin fairer. I even recall seeing a billboard announcing the launch of a whitening body wash! But as the saying goes, you always want what you can’t have. Or in the case of beauty products, what you aren’t born with. The appeal of the “other” is not a foreign concept, with people from across the globe trying ever desperately to be more Western. Or less Asian. Or a little bit African.

Eyelid enhancers are all the rage in China. All you do is stick a small eyelid shaped patch jus on the eyelid area and over a period of time, an eyelid fold will supposedly appear. “The grass is greener on the other side”, “the media’s influence distorts women’s body image”, we’ve heard it almost on repeat. But what implications do these behaviours have on our definition of culture? By rejecting their melanin-rich complexion, are Indians making a statement about all that is attached to their identity? Of course there are equivalents for each culture, though the core principles remain the same.

I can firmly state that in my experience, I have encountered countless individuals who view their culture with disdain. But perhaps this has something to do with an unclear sense of identity. I was born here in Sydney, though my family are all from Bangladesh. In Australia, I’m predominantly viewed as Bengali but when I go back to Bangladesh, they see me as Australian. Perhaps this notion of not having roots deeply set in one particular culture shapes the attachment one feels with an identity.

At a recent “community gathering”- a broad term referring to a cluster of Bengali people meeting at a set time (usually in a park), I noted most peculiar behaviour. I overheard a married Bengali man, aged in his mid-thirties, boast about not knowing how to speak Bengali. Not quietly admit, but boast. Perhaps what’s more unsettling is that he came to Australia in his late teens and there is almost zero chance of him “forgetting” a whole language he used to be able to read and write in, within a matter of years. Ashamed of his culture, this experience reminded me of skin whitening creams and the sought. Such an emphasis is placed on the different views of beauty or how it is unhealthy to place certain expectations upon ourselves. But there are more defining issues to consider, such as: are you admiring what you don’t have or rather, yearning for a portrayed cultural identity rather than your own.

Whitening creams can be found in Australia, many in Indian shops. With names like “Fair and Lovely”, it’s almost difficult to accept that such products are being purchased purely for a cosmetic reason but perhaps for the mental comfort it provides certain people.

So next time you’re considering your latest cosmetic enhancing purchase, think about why exactly you desire them in the first place.


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