New Emissary

Natural vs. Light?

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New Emissary

Natural vs. Light?

Asians spend billions a year on products and treatments to ‘whiten’ their skin. Is it time to turn the focus to inner beauty?

Despite the mostly light-hearted subject matter of a recent interview I did with Gaurav Jain, the creator and producer of the new animated children’s film Ashoka the Hero, some more serious topics also came up—including how in Asia, fairer skin colour is still desired by many as a necessary quality for attaining a higher ‘standard’ of beauty.

‘You won’t believe it,’ Jain started off as he told me the story of one company that he met with to discuss an endorsement in the early stages of development for Ashoka. ‘It was one of these brands who wanted to be involved with the film, which creates children’s products,’ he explained. But much to his surprise, they told him outright that they wanted the film’s hero, an elementary school aged Indian boy, to be lighter-skinned. ‘They said “OK, we want him to be fair, he has to be white, he can’t be dark.”’

While that was the end of negotiations between Jain and the company, (‘I was like “maybe we can’t really work together.” So it didn’t really go anywhere after that…but it was a bit of a shocker when they said, “He has to be fair.’”), Jain says he sees it as a larger issue that still prevails in India today.

‘It’s definitely an issue here. We sell skin whitening cream and stuff, it’s a huge industry. It’s crazy.’

‘You see media and films and you see all of these people and they sort of push fairness or whatever you want to call it at you, as a standard of beauty and people get caught up in it,’ he added.  

This topic reminded me of a conversation I had last year with a Thailand-based photographer who told me his next project would be to photograph women all over Asia, to highlight the unique beauty found in diverse skin tones. Indeed, it seems more projects like this one, which I’m looking forward to covering here in the future, might be necessary.

Anyway, aside from the questionable principle, there are other problems arising from the trend, as highlighted by The Chicago Tribune last year. It reported that tests it conducted on 50 whitening products showed that those manufactured in Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan and Taiwan were found to be particularly high in the toxic metal mercury. Meanwhile, The Guardian also reported last year that a young Cambodian woman died after using a skin-whitening cream, while a Public Radio International special report in 2009 noted that ‘a growing number of poor Asian women are using illegal products containing toxic chemicals that have left some of them disfigured.’

An article in the Global Post from last November, meanwhile, also stated that Asians now spend an astonishing about $18 billion a year to look paler. Apparently there are a number of reasons why the trend has become widespread amongst Asians over the past decade, including the still deep-rooted colonial-era belief that ‘light is more powerful,’ as well as the notion that white covers ugliness and flaws.

But there are encouraging signs that the skin-whitening trend might be seeing a backlash. At the start of the year, one of India’s biggest celebrities, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, caused an Internet and media frenzy that began when her fans saw her on the cover of the December issue of the British edition of fashion magazine Elle, with what appeared to be a complexion much lighter than her natural one. Bachchan was reportedly ‘furious’ with the publication, and said she had ‘believed that these things don't happen anymore in this day and age when women are recognized for their merit, and not for the colour of their skin.’

This incident is perhaps an encouraging sign that the Indian public is becoming more aware of the importance of embracing their natural skin tone and, as Bachchan allegedly suggested, that Asian women ought to be recognized for their inner beauty rather than for what’s being presented on the surface.