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While searching for a Bollywood film at an Indo-Pak store my eye was drawn to shelves of Fair & Lovely products that promised a brighter future with whiter skin. A series of commercials for Pond’s White Beauty showed a mini soap opera of dark-skinned Miss World, Priyanka Chopra, lightening her skin to attract her ex-boyfriend, Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan. South Asian matrimonial ads posted on the wall advertise that the bachlorette is “fair,” and bachelor ads usually clarify that this is a quality they are looking for; this allows one to have a fair and lovely spouse and procreate lighter-complexioned children.
Some Caucasians reading this might be incredulous to learn about people’s quest to become lighter. In one episode of “The Office,” Michael Scott, the goofy boss, attends an Indian party with his white girlfriend. An old Indian couple praises his blonde partner, “She’s very fair,” to which the clueless Michael replies: “Yeah, she’s very fair. And kind.” After all, why would it mean otherwise? Why would people want to get lighter? In the era of tanning, brown is the new white.
But for some, it’s more complicated. Until recently, popular African-American magazines like Ebony featured bleaching products to lighten dark skin, and they are still popular in African-American grocery stores in addition to Latin American, Caribbean, and Asian ones. Celebrities of color like Sammy Sosa have become whiter over time. This year, Senate majority leader Harry Reid brought attention to his belief that President Barack Obama was able to be elected as an African-American for his light skin. While his comment was certainly a political faux pas, a study by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business seems to confirm his opinion. Subjects who perceived Obama as lighter were more likely to vote for him; the results were confirmed by similar study with a control, fake candidate.
Self-esteem issues related to skin color now travel the opposite road as well. It’s certainly true that skin color consciousness doesn’t just affect immigrant or colored communities. The greatest skin issue that affected girls in my high school (and still do, I am told) was the quest for an Angelina Jolie tan. I remember girls coming to school with radiant, orange skin. This was not a result of carotene over-consumption but, I was told at first, a natural tan that guys “found hot.” Since this was in sunny Georgia, this was plausible, but inevitably I would find that this garish hue was the product of weekly trips to the tanning salon and layers of tanning products.
While the desire for darker skin is very different from that for lighter skin, which has deep roots in colonization and slavery, they are both issues with little publicized, problematic health consequences. Many skin-lightening creams contain the chemical hydroquinone, which can lead to cancer, the strong steroid clobetasol propionate, and the poisons mercury and arsenic. Tanning is no better. Even indoor tanning lamps (UV radiation) cause melanoma and squamous cell cancer, not to mention the psychological turmoil of striving for the imagined “ideal” skin color.
That certainly sounds frightening, but few people know, or care, about the side-effects changing skin color. I still know some people who think that this is the key to getting the perfect guy, the perfect life. I know it’s too much to ask society to change racial problems overnight, but there is certainly more we can do. In America, we can at least ask teachers to bring attention to skin-esteem in schools, doctors to look out for their patients, the Food and Drug Administration to regulate dangerous products, the Federal Commercial Commission to regulate commercials with negative racial overtones, and consumer watchdog groups to play a more creative and important role.
I’m still waiting for a parody of the Pond’s White Beauty episode, showing Saif Ali Khan pining over a discolored Priyanka Chopra, victim of her creams. With tactics like these, perhaps one day society can learn Michael Scott’s truth: “fair and kind” makes more sense than “fair and lovely.”
Nafees A. Syed ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Leverett House.
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