The quest for different skin tone

Cultural Insights — By on June 1, 2007 at 12:51 pm

It does seem a bit ironic, but the fact is that many Westerners long for darker skin (via sunbathing, tanning booths and tanning creams), while Asians tend to go the other way in a search for lighter skin (yes, often by using skin lightening creams). Now, apparently, a number of Western cosmetic and skin care companies are jumping on this bandwagon by expanding their product offerings in India and other Asian nations.

Avon, L’Oreal, Ponds, Garnier, the Body Shop and Jolen are selling lightening products and all of them face stiff competition from a local giant, Fair and Lovely, a Unilever product that has dominated the market for decades.

Fair and Lovely, with packaging that shows a dark-skinned unhappy woman morphing into a light-skinned smiling one, once focused its advertising on the problems a dark-skinned woman might face finding romance. In a sign of the times, the company’s ads now show lighter skin conferring a different advantage: helping a woman land a job normally held by men, like announcer at cricket matches. “Fair and Lovely: The Power of Beauty,” is the tagline on the company’s newest ad.

Some critics charge that the products reinforce colonial prejudices against darker skin, but many Asians counter that this is merely an age-old cultural preference.

Taking offense at the products is “a very Western way of looking at the world,” said Ashok Venkatramani, who is in charge of the skin care category at Unilever’s Indian unit, Hindustan Lever. “The definition of beauty in the Western world is linked to anti-aging,” he said. “In Asia, it’s all about being two shades lighter.” …

The idea of “glowing fairness” has nothing to do with colonialism, or idealization of European looks, Mr. Villanueva said. “It’s as old as India,” he said, and “deeply rooted in the culture.”

There’s no denying that the notion of “fairness,” as light skin is known in India, is heavily ingrained in the culture. Nearly all of Bollywood’s top actresses have quite pale skin, despite the range of skin tones in India’s population of more than a billion people.

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