July 15, 2011

Exploiting Brown Insecurity!

My friend Abu Shakwa and I were sitting the other day in our favourite brunch spot - Bani Daris Patisserie and Auto Parts of Medinat Qaboos.  As we tucked into our devilled rabbit kittens and raw meat smoothies, the subject came up of skin-whitening.  By coincidence, the subject came up entirely separately from two other places in the subsequent 24 hours.  I take that, then, as a personal instruction from a higher power, to write something about the subject (and thanks to Ms Amal al Moustafa for making the suggestion on the TLS Facebook Page - she was the second.)

So let's start with the well-known yet weird truth: millions of women around the world try to change to colour of their faces and be "fairer".  The word itself is an interesting one.  "Fair" actually means beautiful.  But from around the seventeenth century it gained a second meaning of "not dark".  So somehow, centuries ago, even in northern Europe where everyone was essentially white, "beautiful" and "not dark" were becoming synonymous.  Now, especially in Indian English and common usage among English-speaking Arabs and Africans, fair usually has one meaning: light-skinned.  But the understanding of the original meaning is there too.  Light-skinned equals beautiful.  Two meanings, one word.

Ironically, if you say the word "fair" to an English person, the first association that comes to mind is probably the meaning of equitable or just.  Or the other meaning (from a different root) of a festival.  "Fair" meaning pale or beautiful is a little obscure in English English.  Maybe that's because among white northern Europeans now, you are more likely to find a desire to be darker.  To many of them it says healthy, dynamic, affluent: people who are tanned, especially in the winter, are those who are rich enough to fly off to the sun for a holiday whenever they like.  They swim and frolic, play tennis at private clubs, and get a tan.  Tanned means healthy and rich.

But for an African or Asian, and perhaps back in mediaeval Europe, it meant the opposite: dark skin meant someone poor, who had to work in the sun.  The rich, successful, important man or woman, stayed in the shade eating the fruits of the darker man's labour.  The dark person was poor, unsuccessful and unimportant.  So a white European getting darker is a symbol of their achievement.  And a brown Asian getting lighter is too.  Even the perception of "healthy" is a little different: in our globalised world, Arabs and Indians go to the gym and try to make their biceps bigger and bellies smaller, just like the Europeans.  But not always: in many cultures, especially in Africa but even, for example, in the south of Oman, either or both sexes are considered more beautiful if they are fat.  Why?  Because again, the successful, important person, can sit on his or her ever-expanding butt while the nobody works the fields, staying fit and lean...and brown.  Even now then, to a degree, white and fat is the ideal of the brown woman, while thin and brown is the obsession of the white one.

If Fatma wants to be white, and Fiona wants to be brown, both face a problem.  Everyone knows that spending too much time in the sun - especially if your skin is not well defended naturally, like whitey Fiona - can cause problems.  First you will get burnt.  Second, you might get skin cancer and die.  Which doesn't look great at all.  But less well-known are the side effects of trying to be white.  Fiona can paint her body with a dye instead of toasting her skin in the sun and having a face like a tobacco leaf by the age of forty.  Fatma can also paint herself with white makeup (check out Dhofari fashion!).  But she can also use one of a multitude of "fairness creams".  Fair = pale = beautiful.  In a bottle.  But at what cost?

There are many different kinds of whitening creams sold to women (and increasingly now, to men).  One projection I read recently said that the market for whitening creams could reach $2 billion in 2012.  That would be enough to feed every malnourished person on the planet over the same period.  So it's big business. The problem is, that just like with tanning, there can be a lot of unpleasant side effects.  Hideous hyperpigmentation, cysts, cancers, and every manner of rash and irritation.  Some contain mercury, or prescription drugs that even doctors are wary of using, chemicals that can cause kidney failure, dementia, and damage to an unborn child.  Horrible side effects are so common we've probably all seen them at some point:  Has anyone ever seen an older lady with pale, patchy skin and weirdly dark areas around her eyes like a panda?  That's a very common side effect of long-term use, and I know I've seen it myself many times.

Most of the more serious health problems and deaths are caused by unlicensed products dumped on the developing world.  But big, well-known brands have to be more careful.  And surely, multi-national companies have products that are checked to the most stringent standards, right?  Well yes, and no: the same product might have different ingredients for different markets depending on local regulation.  Even something that's allowed in the US, might be banned or prescription-only in the EU.  And then there is the problem of fakes - counterfeit bottles of well-known brands made by unknown persons with unknown ingredients.

But even if you use the most popular and trusted brand - Unilever's "Fair & Lovely" range - and even if it's genuine, do you really know what's in it?  Unilever claim that it doesn't contain any "dangerous" ingredients.  Now that's an interesting use of language, because I have to ask what the legal definition of "dangerous" is?  Surely if it's legal, it can't be legally "dangerous", so I wonder if perhaps we have a usage of words here that's designed to reassure about everything, while meaning nothing?  This is a subject to which I shall return in another post, but the language of the food, cosmetics or any consumer product manufacturer, is always suspect.  For example, when they say "no mercury", does that mean "no mercury", or does it mean "no mercury above FDA-approved safe levels"?  You might assume the former,  but you might be wrong.

Unilever does say specifically that "Fair & Lovely" does not contain hydroquinone - a drug that is dangerous if used in excess or over a long period.  Hydroquinone is legal in the US up to 2% concentration without prescription, and up to 4% from a doctor.  Of course, without medical guidance, who is to stop some insecure woman using ten times as much as is recommended, even at the lower concentration?  After all, if you buy something over the counter to put on your face, it's harmless, right?  It's banned in some other countries though - notably France - because apart from all the other nasty side effects, they believe it can cause leukaemia (cancer of the blood).  Anyway, Unilever say there's no hydroquinone in "Fair & Lovely".  They also show lab reports to prove that, and also to prove the absence of mercury or steroids.  So as far as we know, there's nothing really nasty in that particular brand - although Unilever have refused to list their actual ingredients.  Perhaps that is only for intellectual property reasons, if we give the benefit of the doubt.

The active ingredient in "Fair & Lovely" is niacinamide, along with two different kinds of sunscreen.  According to Unilever, niacinamide was discovered to have "a skin-lightening action" during research in India. This led to the launch of the brand in 1972.  Niacinamide is a less frightening compound than some of the others, has side effects that are less dramatic and less common, and might even have other benefits, such as making the skin retain more moisture.  This, along with sun screen, is what Unilever claim makes Fair & Lovely work.  The thing is, I'm not convinced it actually does:

According to Unilever's "Fair & Lovely" website, the effects are very limited, if you read carefully: of course like any cosmetic, they are careful to point out that "Fair & Lovely" is not designed to treat any actual problems, such as hyperpigmentation.  It is for cosmetic use only.  And that's an interesting term.  Cosmetic.  Superficial.  On the surface.  Changing the appearance rather than the fact.  Because as the website explains, "It is not possible for any cosmetic to make anyone fairer than their original complexion".  What?!  All of that waffle, and you don't get any "fairer"?  You see, it can only provide "benefits" and affect "sun-exposure related darkening, oily and rough appearance".   So essentially, the market leader in "whitening" is going to make your skin appear smoother, and stop you getting a tan.  Like sunscreen.  Actually, it is sunscreen.

There you go then, ladies and gentlemen of colour.  The cosmetics technology breakthrough you were waiting for, available since 1972: if you wear a lot of sunscreen, you lose your tan.  Wow.  So if you want to be whiter, you have three choices: settle for just losing your tan and use "Fair & Lovely" or any other high-factor sunscreen.  Or, use light-coloured makeup.  Or buy other skin-whitening products that have actual whitening ingredients, but they will eventually disfigure, injure and possibly kill you.  Here's a really weird one: some people actually use the more dangerous ones to "bleach their anus or vaginal area".  Have you really ever heard anyone say "yeah, I would have married her, but her labia are a bit dark...".  No, me neither.

Anyway, back above the waistline: you can't make yourself whiter.  At least not safely.  But why would you want to?  Really, in this day and age, aren't we all aware that there are beautiful people of every colour, race and social stratum, and that a billionaire is more likely to be Chinese or Indian than American?  Or that a supermodel can be Afro-Caribbean or Brazilian?  Why, but why, would anyone be so insecure as to think being a different colour would make them more beautiful?  

Well, maybe because that's what you're told.  Societies all over the world have invented strange definitions of beauty ever since women first looked at their reflections in a pond.  But aren't we supposed to me moving on from that?  Not really.  I can't remember the last time I watched MBC and didn't see an advertisement (alternately in English and Arabic) for "Fair & Lovely" - the one with the beautiful lady wanting a lighter face with no pigmentation spots.  She's so much happier once she's lighter (or, as it appear in the ad, has different makeup, but advertising is what it is...).  Mercifully, the government in India actually banned one of these ads for suggesting that a woman might actually find a husband and a better job more easily if she changed the colour of her face.  India stands alone in that though.  For the rest of us, the daily message is clear: if you're dark, you're ugly and unsuccessful in love and in life.

Insecurities are something we all have.  Maybe we should also look at the hilarious ads telling mothers to sterilise their children from head to toe or they'll get a rash.  There are always buttons for advertisers to press, to sell fear to the masses: "If you don't buy this, you will be ugly".  "If you don't buy this, you will be a bad parent".  "If you don't buy this, you will not be cool".  "If you don't buy this, your girlfriends will gossip about the state of your toilet when you leave the room."  Utter bullshit.  But surely, in 2011, after civil rights in America, an end to colonialism (almost), global communication, awareness of other races, cultures and human commonalities like no other time in history, "you are ugly because you're brown" is the most bizarre message of all?

Everyone has to make up their own mind I suppose.  But to Fatma who wants to be white, and Fiona who wants to be brown, I have a couple of pieces of advice: first, twenty years from now you will look at a photograph of yourself from today and realise that you looked way, way,  better than you thought you did.  Second, if you think poisoning yourself or changing the colour of your face with a dollop of makeup will make someone love you more, then you need to find someone else to love you.  Take my word for it, somebody will.

And on that latter point, I'm very light-skinned, and I happen to find very dark-skinned women most attractive.  So, er...Fatma is it?  How you doin'? ;)

P.S.  Separate issue I know, but don't mess with that big booty either...I like it that way...thanks.


AZ said...

How true and spot on...(off to the beach now, need to get a proper tan before flying to Europe for my well deserved summer holidays ;)

♡ αmαℓ said...

Sadly, I don't see this issue going away for a long time. Just yesterday I saw an article in a magazine here for a fairness cream by L'Oreal. Even big brands from America and Europe (Chanel has a whitening line here, I tried it) are cashing in on women's insecurities with lines exclusive for the Middle East & Asia. It is really sad! I wish they would have something in schools (A bit far fetched, no?) to teach girls that their skin color is beautiful and they don't need to be light-skinned. Otherwise it's just going to be a vicious circle, going on and on...

Dr, S said...

This is all very sad, but very true.

Ironically, it seems that in the 'whiter' west, we embrace dark skin (or, in fact, skin of any colour!), whereas here in the 'browner' east, it's shunned as ugly, undesirable and all sorts of other negative connotatations.

This I find particularly sad given that I'm dark skinned (relatively speaking), but from the west! And there was I, innocently (naively??) thinking I'd be coming to a place where I should feel more "at home", not less....

One can only hope the region adopts more than just Macdonalds and KFC from that part of the world.

Omani Princess (not Omani LOL) said...

Hmmm, that may be the first coffee shop I ever tried in Oman if there is a particular young Indian staff member who thinks lettuce is chips;). Good 'ole MQ days.

To the point of the post:

I always get sad when Omani relatives tell me they hope my children look like me instead of their father, like his skin and hair type is less than mine. The OPNO girls blogged about this a long time ago:

Funny thing is, when I put niqab on and am wearing kohl, people think I am a pale Pakistani (I mean, when I am not with my husband), if I am not wearing more than the abayas I wear in our village and on the farm (ones it is okay to get dirty). So I get treated bad until I bark out in English about such treatment.

Race and colour are so subjective.

In the West we buy our abayas and niqabs from Ebay lol. So I remember I arrived in Abu Dhabi in my nicest abaya (for our national standards) and some Emirati woman thought I was a Yemeni begger;). I wish people stopped trying to class people by nations on outward appearence. I personally find the African-looking Omani women to be the most beautiful in the country. Sometimes I see a cashier in Lulu weighing vegetables (without her daily cake of white makeup for some reason) and I gawk because to me she looks so pretty. So there you go;)

TLS, sorry for all the UNRELATED personal points, but back in the West, none of the European male converts wanted to marry European female converts, they all wanted to marry Asian or Arabs lol. So when any Arab ladies were like, grrrrr, why are all the white girls at the Mosque marrying men from the Khaleej, it was because they were the only Muslims proposing to us who weren't after our passports lol.

And for those silly white girls who want to tan, don't use silly spray on tanners of bake yourself in the sun either.

Boxie said...

It is really sad to see people hurting themselves for beauty. Think of all the extra time people would have if they stopped trying so hard for something that is not even reachable unless you wana go get a full body tattoo. Here in the west the equivalence to lightning creams are age reducing creams to make you look years younger.... right.... Here we are pumped full of adds that say 18-25ish is what you always want your body to look like. Aging gracefully has flown out the window and seems to have landed on common sense.

Anonymous said...


Warda said...

Ohhh here I was working on my tan. Lol

The Zanzibar Omani brown woman

Anokhi said...

Unfortunately there seems to be a basic human perception that "the grass is always greener". This really goes way beyond just attitudes to colour. At the end of the day, it seems to be human nature to want what you don't have. Your hair's straight, you want it curly. It's curly, you want it straight. We live in a world where everyone is "too" something - too big, too small, too tall, too short, too dark, too white. Its only when you realise this that you also realise there's no sense in fighting against what nature gave you. When you look at how much money is spent on cosmetic procedures and what people put themselves through in terms of surgery etc. it is truly horrifying. Imagine if that money went to some valuable cause instead. Sadly, at a base level though I don't think this will ever change. The media has a LOT to answer for. People are under so much pressure to look a certain way. This isn't isolated to 'fairness' in the East. Look at the expectations heaped on Westerners - women are supposed to be perpetually young, skinny, big breasted, whatever. Have a baby and you're supposed to look like a toned 20-year old straight afterwards. It's all unrealistic. We live in a world full of airbrushed, photoshopped images that people sadly aspire to.

Tony Walsh said...

I know you don't mean to be sexist - but don't forget the other gender's version which claims (trying hard not to advertise here) to make you fair and also handsome !

Bemused said...

In Scotland, fair means pale. Because I am a redhead, I have, from childhood, heard myself described as fair or fair skinned. Blondes are described as very fair.

Fair can also mean just while bonnie would mean beautiful.

lil-bee said...

I need to move to the South of Oman LOL

I'm relatively fair compared to my cousins back at home / my dad's side .. and they ALWAYS say this to me:

Your so fair and beautiful.

Like the word fair is almost mutually inclusively used with beauty.

On the other hand, they always put themselves down or say stuff like:

OMG she's so dark, she looks ugly.

I think its all stemmed in the colonial times where white ruled browns, moving on to the caste system where the higher classes used to be more fair while the untouchables were all dark (because they'd be out in the sun all day, working).

I've seen this mentality carry on to my generation, in America and Canada though. Like the Asians here in England are all pretty much obsessed with tans.

I guess because we don't have much sun, we're all going tan crazy.

In Canada & America though (where the Asians there are mostly 1st / 2nd generation, while in England we're like 4th) .. they still hold the dominant view that dark = undesirable from back home.

Us European Asians are pro-tan :P

But than again, I guess this differs from ages, etc.

But I think the main thing it comes down to is wealth / status. We want what we don't have .. we don't have sun, so getting a tan = going on holiday.

Interestingly, black Africans here are still after lighter skin like Black Caribbeans .. I think its just a case of wanting what we don't have on the other side of the grass :P

Sa'dia said...

So true. when a male relative in my family was looking for a girl to marry, then the first thing people commented about a prospective wife was her skin colour (yes, who cares about character when she's so fair and beautiful! - note the sarcasm) And i couldnt have been happier when he chose a girl that was probably 2 shades darker than him! they're like topdeck :)

Georgie said...

This makes me so sad. When my West African in-laws look at my pale, pasty face and say, 'you're so beautiful'. When those stunning women in South Oman ask me in for tea and then tell me, "I wish my skin was your colour". And they don't believe me when I tell them how I envy their dark gazelle eyes, their beautiful glossy black hair, their lovely skin. And I am not putting myself down here, but chicks, you Dhofari girls, you Tanzanian babes, you absolutely stunning Indian women, and my super-modell-ey beautiful Senegalese in-laws, WHY? Look at yourselves in the mirror, you lot are gorgeous. Next to you, I look like a nothing. Don't change a thing. And please don't buy this horrible poison stuff to put on your skin, your skin is like your liver, it is an organ.

Almost a Muslimah said...

there seems to be this sort of glorification of white skin in the gulf. i'm rather fair and it seemed as such a great advantage for my iraqi/saudi ex-bf. even his male relatives would tell him: get yourself a european wife who has fair skin and green or blue eyes (!).
his mother was looking for a wife for him and she knew that he'd want sb with pale skin...

what about good character? white skin doesn't equate to it!

btw, you have a great blog! absolutely love your writing :-)

Mr. Steve said...

Without wishing to encourage such practices, these sorts of beauty treatments can be obtained very cheaply from Ramez. In addition to a range of whitening soaps, the emporium of tat also offers ‘Big Boy’ soap for men ('massage softly private part of body from down to up and leave for 3-5 minutes and then rinse off by water 2 times a day’) as well as ‘Tightening’, ‘Virginity’ and ‘Bust Firming’ soaps for women. I considered developing a universal bar of soap which contains the powers of the above with added anti-wrinkle and genital, underarm and teeth whitening properties. I know it would sell.

Laylah said...

Ah yes,the whitening creams! They have scary looking whitening salons (opposite of a solarium) at the high end spas.
I've found virginity soap and bust enlarging soaps on sale. The soap bar has Carmen Electra on it and it says touch me please! check it out here: