Curry Corner, a tiny Indian store in Melbourne has been servicing the spice and lentil needs of Indian immigrants in Australia for more than 40 years. It also stocks a large collection of skin-whitening products, which are displayed prominently in the front right corner of the shop. From a skin bleaching cream for “instant golden glow” by Fem to a Fair & Lovely skin whitening cream for “daily treatment,” possibilities seem endless.
Having grown up with a darker skin tone than the “standard” Indian shade, such products are not too alien to my sight. Many cosmetic stores and beauty salons would recommend them to me. I was often told that I would look prettier and that my features would accentuate better if I had a lighter skin tone.
After assuring me that “everybody buys them,” the retails assistant seemingly waits for me to pick one.
This certainty is not new. Before boarding my flight to Melbourne from Delhi last year, I had stopped at the airport drugstore to buy myself lotion for the journey. The shopkeeper told me there was a “good deal” on lotions and without knowing what I wanted, pulled out a Nivea Skin Whitening Lotion, which also offered a Nivea Underarm Whitening Deo for free.
According to the intelligence firm Global Industry Analysts, the market for skin whitening products is expected to touch $31 billion by 2024. India alone has a $200 million strong skin whitening product industry.
The market for these products in Australia expanding with the growing immigrant population. Data from the latest census by Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that 28 per cent of the population was born overseas. The number of Australian residents born in neighbouring Asian countries experienced the largest growth in 2016, including Japan, China, Malaysia and India.
Sydney based dermatologist Rachit Gupta says, “There is a growing demand for these creams in Australia. I would say, especially among Asian women in their 20s and 30s. Mainly because light skin is considered ‘good’ in their culture.”
Dermatologists have warned about the risks of using these products citing side-effects, especially as instructions of many of them are in foreign languages.
Pharmacist Cherry Wong at Priceline on Bourke Street says: “La Roche Posay (an Australian brand) does have a skin whitening cream, but we’re out of stock for it at the moment. I think the target audience is mainly Asian women in Australia. It could be cultural issue or personal preference, it’s hard to say,” says Cherry while stocking other La Roche Posay products on the shelf.
Sales Assistant Narender Singh at ‘India at Home’, Box Hill, says sales of skin whitening products at his storeare tepid, “These products [pointing towards a shelf with skin lightening bleach creams] have been sitting here for a year, nobody is buying them.”
“Maybe people are getting over white skin,” Narender says, laughing. “Although, Ayurveda (natural) products for skin have been very popular, recently.”
“Do they promise fairer skin?”
After a long pause, Singh, seemingly surprised with himself, says, “Well, yes.”
Ayurveda is a traditional system of medicine with roots in the Indian subcontinent. Many companies have used the practice to make their products “natural,” since consumers are often sceptical of using chemical products. The natural products often claim to have slow but long term impact, while cosmetics boast of the “instant glow.”
But whether natural or chemical, lightening skin tone is their common promise. Be it a natural product like Aloe Vera gel or a chemically strong bleach cream, both guarantee the customer whiter or lighter skin.
Even DIY (Do It Yourself) remedies for skin care at home, made famous by Instagram beauty gurus or social media influencers, reek of a strong desire to have a lighter skin tone. “How to whiten skin from kitchen supplies” is a viral read on the internet.
Lightening one’s skin is perceived to come with increased privileges and higher social standing in many developing countries. As a result of colonization of people of color that stretched for hundreds of years, white skin is often linked to leadership or supremacy.
Last year, Ghana banned the use of hydroquinone, the primary chemical found in skin whitening bleaches and creams. Ghana is one of three African countries, including Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa, to regulate skin whitening products. The chemical has been banned in Europe as well, but Australia has not taken any steps to regulate the products.
The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) prohibited cosmetic brands from communicating any discrimination based on skin color through advertising in 2014 following public criticism of the widespread advertising for fairness and skin lightening products.
The guidelines state: “These ads should not reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin color. Specifically, advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin, in a way which is widely seen as, unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned.”
Indian activist Kavitha Emmanuel, initiated a campaign in 2009 called Dark is Beautiful to draw attention to the unjust effects of skin color bias and also to celebrate the beauty and diversity of skin tones.
Emmanuel says that although banning these products might help, it is not a realistic solution: “We need to change the mindset. If people won’t be able buy skin whitening products, they will experiment at home… the DIY way. As long as they believe whiter skin to be better skin, such bans can’t stop them. What we need to do is change the thinking, that’s the real fight.”
The desire to have lighter skin is normalized and is sold every day. It may be in the form of a billboard or a 30-second ad with “revolutionary techniques” on TV with a scientist mixing chemicals in a germ free lab, promising whiter skin.
Last year, Dove ran a Facebook which showed a black woman turning white after using its body lotion. Another advertisement for skin-whitening pills had the slogan “white makes you win.” Thai model Cris Horwang was shown with gradually darkening skin, as she says: “If I stop taking care of myself, everything I have worked for, the whiteness I have invested in, may be lost.”
For years, ads on Indian TV featured a dark skinned woman failing at life, depressed, under confident, and, of course, without any marital prospects. But, as soon as she began using a skin whitening cream, she is transformed into a star — promoted, married and super confident.
Racism in ads for skin whitening products is not new. Australia’s share of such ads dates back to early 1900s. The 1920 Nulla-Nulla soap ad with the slogan “Australia’s White Hope, The Best Household Soap,” showed a seemingly black woman with word ‘DIRT’ wrapped around her neck. A white hand can be seen hitting the woman on the head.
Author Kathleen Jackson writes that the most literal reading of Nulla-Nulla advertisement would be that it is a particularly good soap because it can clean even the dirtiest object, which in this case is a Black woman.
Melbourne based educator, artist, activist Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa says that white has always been linked to purity, and that is a problem. “I think purity is a big theme in South Asian religious ideologies and culture has dictated that pure = white = clean and impure = black/darkness = dirty. Even if you ask young kids to draw “God” they will immediately draw an old white man in the sky/clouds. Why is God a white man?”
The bias adversely effects women, Khalsa says: “I remember as a kid if I wore black dresses or clothes it was considered to be so rebellious. As if black is a dangerous and deadly color? It’s as if that’s all they saw me as — my skin color and whether I was marriageable or not.”
Almost a hundred years later, despite several awareness campaigns, the skin whitening industry continues to grow. India at Home’s sales assistant Singh disapproves of the skin whiteners on his shelf: “They shouldn’t sell these anymore. It’s not a nice thing to do, is it?”