Fair and Lovely: Accepting our skin color

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Fair and Lovely: Accepting our skin color

Jennie Chen

Every time senior Varna Chandar visits India, she notices the store shelves stocked high with skin lightening products and advertisements showing a frowning woman with darker skin and a happier woman with lighter skin. While the products may be a huge market in India, Chandar is discomforted by the popularity of these advertisements and products that she now believes discriminate against darker skin tones.

“It kind of imprints in your mind at a young age when we’re so impressionable that being dark is bad,” Chandar said. “It’s not a value society should have.”

In October of this year, Dove received backlash for its three-second video clip of three women of different ethnicities removing a T-shirt to reveal another woman underneath. The clip, showing a black woman removing her shirt to reveal a white woman, went viral on social media. A statement from Dove explained that the “short video was intended to convey that Dove body wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but [they] got it wrong.” However, users lambasted it for its racist implications because they believed it portrayed women of color in a more negative view than white women, insinuating that they were dirtier because of the color of their skin.

This is not the first time Dove’s campaign for women’s diversity has sparked controversy — an earlier 2011 advertisement was also criticized because it showed two women of color standing near a “before” sign and a white woman standing in front of the “after” sign.

Senior Amanda Zhao had mixed feelings when she saw articles about the video on her Facebook timeline.

“At first I thought it was pretty insensitive how they had a black woman and they made her ‘clean’ by making her white,” Zhao said. “But I also saw some articles saying how it was taken out of context, so I’m conflicted.”

Dove claims the implications were a misunderstanding, but whether by accident or not, beauty ads that contain imagery suggesting darker skin is “dirty” and white skin is “clean” leads to a market for skin lightening products.

Although Chandar’s family and relatives used a specific skin lightening cream called Fair and Lovely and recommended she do the same, she states that peer pressure wasn’t an influence in her final decision to use the product, but her own curiosity. While she didn’t think there would be extremely noticeable changes, there was a part of her that believed it would work. She ended up using Fair and Lovely twice each week for about a year. Chandar isn’t sure whether or not she became lighter, but says her mom was pleased.

“My mom was happy that I was using it,” Chandar said. “It wasn’t a big deal, it was just a small thing, like ‘Oh good, you’re using it.’”

Zhao was also exposed to these beauty standards during childhood.

“My mom always told me, ‘You should have paler skin and be taller,’ because I guess that’s what I lacked,” Zhao said. “She would also tell me, ‘Don’t go out in the sun too much because you’re going to get tan and tan doesn’t look good.’”

Zhao took her mom’s words to heart at first, and even considered trying out skin lightening products. However, her mom stopped her, warning her the products could cause cancer. Instead, Zhao was told to apply generous amounts of sunscreen.

An article by skinwhiteningnews.org notes that a common ingredient of skin lightening creams is hydroquinone, which is considered carcinogenic. However, products that contain 2 percent hydroquinone can be sold over-the-counter and products containing up to 4 percent hydroquinone can be prescribed.

In reality, sunscreen only protects users from sunburn and sun damage, not from tanning. Dermatologist Dr. Sandra Yeh also recommends people to mainly stay out of the sun and not pick at skin lesions, which will turn the skin dark. Yeh also states patients with acne are likely to develop dark patches, but calls these hyperpigmentation problems “temporary fixes” as they are unlikely to come back after lightening treatments. Patients who purposefully want to lighten their skin, however, receive a different response.

“While I do understand that there may be some strong cultural pressures to [lighten skin], I don’t recommend it and I don’t write [prescriptions] just to lighten skin,” Yeh said. “The main reason I don’t recommend the use is because this medicine has to be continually used to work, and we just don’t know long-term side effects for this.”

While Chandar did not experience any side effects while using Fair and Lovely, she had never considered the effects of skin lightening to be from the work of chemicals.

Yeh explained that the most common side effect of lightening cream use is irritation, which causes a burning or stinging sensation on the face. She also mentions a more uncommon occurrence, which is that skin will become more darkly pigmented if lightening creams are used for too long or certain chemicals are in too high a concentration.

The skinwhiteningnews.org article also states that common side effects reported from the use of skin lightening creams with hydroquinone are “skin rashes, burning skin irritation, excessive redness and a dryness or cracking of the skin.” The topical agent can sometimes induce a condition known as “ochronosis,” where people show a blue-black darkening in certain areas of the skin, which is usually permanent.

However, it wasn’t the potential dangers of skin lightening that stopped Chandar from using Fair and Lovely, but rather her realization that it was a waste to use the cream to fit into cultural stereotypes. Chandar realized she really didn’t care what color her skin was or what her relatives thought.

“It was kind of interesting because it was so big to [my relatives] — how big fairness is and how dark skin colors in India are kind of looked down upon,” Chandar said. “I didn’t like the reason why they were doing it or why they would think it was necessary to tell me that I should use it.”

Zhao never ended up using skin lightening creams, but eventually quit the outdoor swim lessons she used to take in middle school. Her skin tone was brought up by her relatives when she back to China, and although they were less direct than the comments Chandar would receive from her relatives, their comments about her looking whiter made her realize that the bias towards lighter skin was still there.

“I guess they don’t really say it to your face like ‘You’re tan’ or ‘You’re dark,’” Zhao said. “But if you ‘improve,’ then they’ll point it out.”

Yeh emphasizes the importance of embracing one’s skin tone to her patients.

“The tone of your skin is not important to me actually as much as the health of your skin. You take care of it with sunscreen, good hygiene, don’t pick at it,” Yeh said. “I am aware that there are societal pressures on women in particular. I just don’t want to support that kind of pressure because I just think it doesn’t matter. I have patients with very dark skin [and] very light [skin]; I just want them to be healthy.”

Zhao and Chandar both feel it’s a matter of choice — if one really feels the need to lighten their skin for a certain reason, then the decision is up to them. However, Zhao thinks lightening skin for the sake of being paler is more looked down upon, while using them to try evening out skin tone is more justified. Although Chandar believes people shouldn’t be ashamed to have dark spots or freckles, she advocates for everyone doing what they have to do to make them feel comfortable, saying using beauty products is about making oneself look the best they can.

But to people who want to lighten their skin because of societal pressures, Chandar has a different message:

“I don’t think [you] should do it because that’s forcing yourself into society and what they value and not really being true to yourself,” Chandar said. “No one should be ashamed of having dark skin.”