When I saw the photos of Lil’ Kim I felt for her and her struggle with colorism and her own self-identity. I wish I could say I don’t understand it or could never see myself doing such a thing but the truth is there was a time in my life where I stared in the mirror and tweaked at my round nose and sucked in my thick lips and thought I would look better without so much Africa on my face. Lil’ Kim just happens to have the misfortune of being blessed with the money and the time it takes transform a person of African heritage into a person who shows no sign of that heritage.
Twenty years ago I may have tried to whiten my skin and bleach my hair. But the products were very expensive in those days and their efficacy questionable at best. These days that has all changed and although it has been decades since I have thought of myself as too African looking I have seen with my own eyes how ubiquitous and inexpensive these products are.
The rise in skin whitening sales is hard to overstate. Even poverty seems to be little barrier to the purchase of these products. Indeed I have found it to be less expensive to purchase products such as face cream, body wash, even deodorant with whitener than it is to buy it without the added chemical bleaching agents. It is certainly less time-consuming with most of the store shelves choked in bleaching agents here in Thailand.
Southeast Asia is one of the most beautifully diverse places on earth. People range in all sizes and all hues. The skin whitening industry is taking a toll on the faces and skin tones of this beautiful multifarious region. Although mostly advertised to women, the necessity for white skin is also sold to men and children. And when we first came here and saw how much a part of everyday life skin-bleaching is I was appaled and insulted. I thought of these women as self-hating and wishing to be white. Although it can be argued that pursuit of whiteness in Asia is not a by-product of Western entertainment and beauty standards, it cannot be said that this practice is harmless. Whiteners have several side effects such as early onset of cataracts and osteoporosis. Another truth is there is a direct benefit to having lighter skin here in Asia. Darker women are less likely to be hired for front desk work even with the same qualifications as their lighter counterparts. Asian men have shown a bias towards lighter women when looking for a marriage partner. Eventhough corporations are only advertising a product, they have locked into a history of colorism which serves to buoy their claims of white is beautiful.
Yet not everyone is falling for this deceptive and dangerous trend. In fact in India the sales of whiteners has seen a sharp decline especially in the sale of men’s products.
But most interesting to me is what the women are
doing. So while ladies especially but men too are affected by these whiteness campaigns all over Asia and the world, in India another type of advertisement has taken hold and made good progress in fighting colorism. Dark Is Beautiful, a slogan by Women of Worth organization against whitening and skin tone preference and color bias. Turns out being brown and proud works.