Tambe: Fairness creams and the desire to be different

While tanning is popular in the Western world, people in India work to give their skin a lighter look, most often by bleaching it. ‘Fairness creams,’ one of India’s popular cosmetic items, have a market size of about $450 million.


Fairness creams are seen in a store in Pune, India, on June 6 (Aadit Tambe/The Daily Iowan)

Aadit Tambe, News Reporter

Growing up in India, my life was influenced by the huge leaps my country has made, and continues to make, toward globalization. At the same time, I was raised to respect and value the culture and traditions that form the fabric of the nation. The open-mindedness of my family gave me the opportunity to pursue my college education in the United States.

Now, when I visit home, I see and observe my country in a new light.

During my first summer at Iowa, I noticed with great surprise, students bringing out their hammocks and lying in the sunlight on the Pentacrest. It made me wonder, “Why on earth would anyone want to expose their skin to the harsh sun and darken it?”

As I later found out, it was called “tanning” and was something many white people in the United States invested money and time in.

I was shocked. Coming from India, I was used to people investing money in creams and lotions referred to as “fairness products” that aim to bleach the skin to achieve a lighter skin tone.

On my summer break to India, as I drove out of the airport, the first thing I saw was a billboard advertising a fairness cream endorsed by a well-known film star, whose face appeared unrealistically light.

Although I knew the concept of “fairness” was popular in India, it was not until I lived in the United States that I realized the blatant societal bias toward lighter people in India, given that all people are born with their own natural skin tone.

Being a geographically diverse country, India has people of different skin complexions. According to research published by the Australian National University, India’s colonization by the British has led to a belief held by many, that white represents power. It states, in South Asian countries, a paler skin marks aristocratic heritage.

Although these factors are not relevant in today’s day and age, they have left strong imprints on the minds of many Indians.

As a child, I remember my friends and I used to want to play cricket in the afternoon during summer break. However, a few of my friends’ parents would not let them play under the sun, fearing that they would get their skin tanned.

“A very fair girl seeks alliance” or “a very fair bride wanted for …” are typical matrimonial advertisements in Indian newspapers.

Research from the Washington University Global Studies Law Review in 2016 states, “It is, however, clear that skin color is the constant and most important factor when finding a prospective partner irrespective of gender in India.” This desire to have a spouse with light skin is regardless of one’s social class, caste, or religion.

“Fairness creams,” long one of the most popular beauty products in India, are used widely by people across all spectra of society, regardless of gender. These products were first introduced in India by Unilever, a Dutch company, in the 1970s. Since then, several “fairness cream” brands emerged in India, dominating the cosmetics market.

According to research published by Washington University Global Studies Law Review, “fairness” products in India maintain a market size of approximately $450 million, growing around 15 to 20 percent each year.

These products, however, are likely to have side effects, which are seldom referenced in advertisements.

A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health revealed such creams and other skin-bleaching products may contain hazardous chemicals ,such as steroids and mercury, that are harmful to the skin and may cause irritation, inflammation, and liver problems.

Growing up around this norm of lightness, I was surprised to notice that people in the Western world strive for tanned skin. Initially, this cultural standard was difficult for me to digest.

The tanning product market in the United States is worth $3 billion, with an annual growth rate of approximately 3.9 percent, according to a 2018 report from IBISWorld. Americans spend approximately six times more to get their skin tanned than Indians do to achieve a lighter skin tone.

Different cultures perceive beauty in different ways. I was raised in India with people around me passionately working to bleach their skin to achieve a fairer look. In the United States, however, I learned that people spent money and time to tan their skin.

This anomaly in the two cultures made me realize that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. After seeing two sides of the same coin, I can’t help but wonder, “if instead of focusing on the color of our skin, we focused on removing our inner darkness, wouldn’t we make the world a better place to live in?”