THE DARK SIDE OF SKIN-WHITENING CREAM
The dangerous fashion for skin-whitening across Asia perpetuates racism and should be stigmatised as such…
Just over a week ago, travelling through Cambodia, I noticed a small item in the Phnom Penh Post reporting that a skin-whitening cream was blamed for the recent death of a young woman. Chhuon Sovann, 23, from the Cambodian border town of Poipet, began vomiting after using the cream and had to be rushed to a Thai hospital and was later pronounced dead.
A minor diplomatic kerfuffle ensued as it turned out the cream was being illegally imported from Vietnam. Some newspapers reported that health officials, backed up by paramilitary troops, started searching suspects coming into Thailand from Cambodia.
I searched for (English) discussions on the death and whether it is healthy for these creams to even be marketed and sold generally, but I found none. Perhaps it was held in native languages, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t any – this is an unfortunate trend across many Asian cultures.
Indian cosmetic companies spend huge amounts of money every year. Across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, along with India and Pakistan, skin-whitening creams are sold everywhere.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific cultural reason. In India it is partly racist: lower-caste Hindus are usually darker and upper-caste Hindus usually lighter. Women are constantly told across Asia that if they get darker no man will want to marry them. Being lighter-skinned is also partly seen as a sign of affluence; it means you didn’t have to work outside in the fields for your living. There are countless other reasons cited in Japan, China and African countries.
These old cultural traits are reflected and perpetuated through the popular media. Products in India and Pakistan get endorsed by Bollywood actors. In Thailand most TV ads show men and women who are abnormally and quite blatantly touched-up to look lighter.
There are have been several controversies in India where ad campaigns by major brands heavily imply that darker-skinned people are less likely to find partners. In fact, the only time I saw dark-skinned Thais or Indians on television were in the news. (It’s worth pointing out that south-India has its own television and film industry that celebrates darker actors, but it isn’t reflective of the more high-profile, Mumbai-based Bollywood industry).
It’s obvious to see the high-profile impact of the skin-whitening phenomena, as the bride-to-be Chhuon Sovann found out to her cost. No doubt there are countless other examples of burnt or badly disfigured faces that go unreported.
More worryingly, it condemns a new generation of Asians to grow up deeply insecure about the colour of their skin. Darker-skinned people of the same ethnicity grow up emotionally scarred and completely unrepresented by the media images they are subjected to daily.
Much of this isn’t new, except that skin-whitening cream is increasingly being aimed at men. In most places in Thailand, I couldn’t actually buy facial products for men without skin-whitening agents.
More recently, this has also spread to the UK. Skin-whitening products aimed at African-Caribbeans, Asians and Arabs fill the ethnic media and are even advertised on the London underground. Even most Asian matrimonial websites ask sign-ups to describe their skintone.
Let’s be clear about this: skin-whitening perpetuates a form of racism. It should be stigmatised as such. If you get angry about it, then boycott the companies that produce and market the products. Complain when the ads are shown.
Skin-whitening products are a disease – it’s time to eradicate them.
By Sunny Hundal