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Skin whitening products: not fair on our self-esteem

Sumisha Naidu

Sat Nov 12 2011

Skin whitening products

SUMISHA Naidu shares her thoughts on the skin whitening trend and the bizarre contradictions of beauty industry messages.

I REMEMBER being around eight-years-old when a lady visited our house in Malaysia. She glanced at my sisters before fixing her gaze on me. Then, in front of all of us, she told my dad: “she’s the fairest, she’s the prettiest.”

My father promptly dismissed her comment.

“What did fairness have to do with it?” he asked.

That’s a sentiment I’ve been lucky enough to grow up with. My parents have always taught us never to care about skin colour. As far as Indians go, my mum is fair-skinned and my dad is darker-skinned – so all us kids have a range of different skin tones.

Traditionally, in my “ancestral homeland” of India, skin colour was used to determine where you stood in society. The fairer you were, the “better” you were.  The same sentiment seems to exist to varying degrees in most Asian societies, including in Malaysia – though, of course, not everyone subscribes to it. But I remember always being fiercely opposed to the idea. Mostly because I couldn’t understand it.

I recall how a Chinese friend once asked me: “oh, do you want to be fairer?”

“Not at all,” I had replied.

Then she pointed to the bottle of moisturiser on my bedside table. “For fairer skin”, the label read.

It was an understandable assumption, given the evidence. What she didn’t know was that I had spent hours looking for moisturisers with UV protection at local stores – the only ones I could find boasted skin lightening properties as well.

Naturally – the logic goes – if I’m interested in protecting my skin from the sun, I must want to have fairer skin too, right? Wrong.

If you’ve grown up in Malaysia or in a similar country, I’m sure this doesn’t surprise you. Skin whitening, lightening, brightening –  the products are everywhere, produced by everyone from international names like L’Oreal to local Asian brands. The fact that the concepts of sun protection and fairness seem to always be linked shows how ingrained the idea is in these societies.

So imagine my surprise when I first stepped into a chemist in Australia four years ago. In the sun protection section, I found row after row of sunscreen with tanning properties. As for whitening products, there were hardly any, except when it came to reducing pigmentation (a different idea altogether). What was even more ironic was that the brands selling tanning products here were the same brands selling lightening products back in Asia.

We always want what we can’t have.

Regardless of how these concepts have come into Asian and Western societies, if a person wants to be lighter or darker, that is their prerogative. I’ve had friends from both camps. For all I know, if I was any fairer or darker myself, I might want to change my skin colour too (though I choose to believe I wouldn’t). Heck, I once went through a stage in high school where I wanted straight hair like the rest of my friends, so I chemically straightened it (never again – but that’s another story), so I’m not immune to wanting to following “trends”.

But my main issue is with the lack of choices for those of us who want to just stick to the skin tone we have.

Australia is much better in this respect, you can get SPF30 moisturisers that don’t claim to lighten or darken your skin. It’s a lot harder in Malaysia, although I hear it’s improving. But the fact that whitening products still outnumber regular sun-protection products is disconcerting.

Shouldn’t there be more options for me to just be…me?

According to the ads below, however, maybe “me” just doesn’t cut it.

Lessons gleaned from skin whitening ads from around the world

1. If I use skin whitening products, I can be a sports commentator – Fair and Lovely (India)


2. If I have fair skin, I will be so beautiful I’ll turn gay men straight – Ponds (Philippines)


3. My dark skin is stopping me from achieving my goals of being a broadcast journalist and having a boyfriend – Fair and Lovely (Egypt)


Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts below.