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“Fair and Lovely”: The Toxic Stigma That Surrounds Dark Skin

Updated: Jul 12, 2019

Illustration by Saja Muzaini

Scrolling through pages and pages of skin bleaching product sold on South Asian online stores, the same “before and after” pictures of models with darker turned lighter complexions bombard my screen. As women from multiple Asian countries routinely slather on a chemical-filled substances for “brighter, cleaner skin,” the continuous glorification of Eurocentric beauty standards in Asia raises concerns for the physical and mental health of young Asian women from all parts of the world. The constant pelting of Fair and Lovely advertisements begs the question, how did the skin lightening industry get so popular?

Mentality and Mercury

The rapidly growing skin bleaching industry is projected to reach a value of $32.1 billion USD by 2024, despite the blaring health hazards the products come with. However, while skin bleaching has been a rather new trend, the stigma that surrounds dark skin dates back to the Era of New Imperialism, where European countries embarked on a race to colonize regions already populated by native populations. This colonization has lead to the integration of skin tone in the social hierarchy. We see in South Asia today that a fair complexion is often associated with status and wealth, a result of oppressive white rule during the late 19th to early 20th centuries. In nations such as India and the Philippines, there is a strong abhorrence towards a long history of European rule, but the resentment doesn’t interfere with the submission to Eurocentric beauty standards. Though it is true that the “snow skin” beauty standard has lived on for many millennia (mainly in East Asian countries), white oppression has only heightened the desire for a lighter complexion in multiple South Asian nations. The support for skin bleaching practices invalidates women, making them believe that the pigmentation of their skin determines whether they are “beautiful enough.” This propels an unhealthy mentality for Asians because these standards further the belief that light skin is the genetically unachievable “norm.” Colorism instigates an internalized form of discrimination, ruins personal relationships, and sets a brainwashed mental barrier that prevents darker-skinned girls and women from having the confidence to defy beauty standards and embrace their natural skin.

Photo by Adam Jones

Not only does the encouragement of skin bleaching perpetuate a harmful mindset for Asian women, it also deteriorates their physical health because of the toxic chemicals used to create skin lightening formulas. The World Health Organization finds that inorganic mercury salts are commonly used in skin bleaching products. This ingredient prevents the formation of melanin, a natural protector against sun damage and skin cancer, resulting in a lighter skin tone. Mercury in skin bleaching products can cause kidney damage, rashes, scarring, weakened immunity, as well as psychological effects such as anxiety, depression, and psychosis. In fact, this ingredient is so hazardous to our health that many nations in Africa and the European Union have banned the production of mercury infused cosmetics all together. Unfortunately, Asian countries have failed to follow in their footsteps. For now, the path to entirely banning the use of mercury rests on the shoulders of investigators like Thony Dizon, a resident of the Philippines and chemical safety campaigner for EcoWaste Coalition. Dizon’s job is to covertly buy skin lightening products that can contain mercury levels over 41,000 times the legal limit. He then sends these products to government officials, who issue notices to stores selling these harmful cosmetics. However, although people like Dizon are desperately needed in the effort to put a stop to skin bleaching, it’s going to take a lot more to reverse this deeply ingrained cultural mentality that thrives in Asian nations.

Conquering Colorism

Personally, I know firsthand what it feels like to look in the mirror and wish for a lighter, “fairer” complexion. At the time, it was an uncomfortable revelation that despite telling others to love the skin they were born in, I wasn’t loving my own. Going to family reunions was always dreaded, as I knew the phrase tai hei le (which quite literally means “too dark”) would be uttered out of the mouths of my overly commentative aunties and grandmas. But fortunately, I was able to have stumbled upon an exceptionally inclusive community of people that has bolstered my self esteem, instead of telling me to stay out of the sun. That’s exactly the atmosphere that millions of Asian women need to be submersed in. A collective exploitation of the effects of colorism can save countless skin cells, and, more importantly, defeat the toxic mentality that Asians all over the world are trapped in. So spread the word that brown is beautiful, because everyone deserves to know skin tone has absolutely nothing to do with self worth.


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