All is fair on the dark side

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An obsession with conforming to collective notions of physical beauty has spawned a giant skincare industry in South Asia. It is worth billions of dollars; and yet, its value is merely skin-deep.

Sometime last week, a hashtag called “ >#UnfairAndLovely” was trending on Twitter. The brainchild of two American-born South-Asian girls, Mirusha and Anusha Yogarajah, #UnfairAndLovely was born out of the frustration and pressure that South-Asian girls face with respect to the colour of their skin. The campaign saw a lot of women participate in it, tweeting out photos of themselves in all their brown glory and challenging conventional beauty standards that endorse fair skin.

The idea of putting snail slime on my face was downright repulsive, and I was angry at myself. For being “dark”. All I could think of was how I could’ve avoided this comment and the subsequent embarrassment if only I had been fair.

This isn’t the first time a campaign calling for change in the way South-Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans) perceive beauty, though. In the year 2009, Women of Worth, a women’s empowerment movement based in Chennai, launched the “Dark is beautiful” campaign, which focussed on changing the way skin colour is portrayed in mainstream media and eliminating colour bias in our society. Girls from the South Asian community are often told in the most matter-of-fact ways that if they weren’t fair they weren’t beautiful and, consequently, would have no hope in life. Isn’t this why fairness creams advertise themselves to be the harbingers of hope and success?

Every advert — across brands — tells the same story. The poor, dark-skinned girl who gets rejected in interviews uses a fairness cream, and — voila! — the company which wouldn’t consider her for a junior executive position hires her as CEO. Who cares about educational qualifications and people skills, the interviewers seem to say as they shake her hand, awestruck. Did you look at her face, and that skin the colour of fresh pearls? This is CEO material we’re looking at! “Dark is beautiful” found support from many people, including the likes of Nandita Das, who eventually went to become the face of the campaign.

My own skin tone veers towards the fair side of the spectrum in our country. I’ve often been told that I don’t look like “someone from Tamil Nadu” and expected to feel flattered, like I’ve been paid a great compliment. I’ve never liked or supported skin colour prejudice, and I have never considered any treatment or cream that has anything to do with fairness, but then again, I come from a place of privilege. Whether I like it or not, my skin fits in with what is conventionally considered attractive. I have not travelled extensively; I have not lived abroad; and so I have never really known what it means to have people judge me by the colour of my skin.

All that changed a few months ago, when I was in Bangkok on work. I was picking up some shampoo at the local Boots (a pharmacy that also sells basic skincare, haircare and beauty products) when I chanced upon snail cream. Numerous jars of snail cream were stacked up right at the entrance, with a prominent poster that claimed the cream to be full of snail enzymes that wouldn’t just make all your skin imperfections disappear, but give it a celestial glow too. Noticing my interest, the sales assistant in the store swiftly came over to help. The store that I had gone to was in a mall that was quite popular with tourists, so she knew her way around basic English. “This is Korean,” she said, and gave me a thumbs-up, as if that was the only aspect of this cream I’d ever need to know.

When she noticed that I wasn’t reacting with the level of excitement one apparently has when they encounter Korean skincare products, she decided to step up her pitch. “It will make your dark skin fair” she told me enthusiastically. “It will make you beautiful”.

I politely declined for two reasons — the first being that the idea of putting snail slime on my face was downright repulsive, and the second because I was angry. Not at the sales assistant, but at myself. For being “dark”. For ten minutes after I left the shop, all I could think of was how I could’ve avoided this comment and the subsequent embarrassment if only I had been fair. That was when I truly understood how debilitating skin colour bias could be. Thankfully, I managed to compose myself once I had a (strong) coffee. But instead of forgetting about the comment, I was intrigued to learn more about the Korean skincare industry. I was aware of the craze surrounding their products, but had never been curious, until now.

I learned that South Korea is a pioneer when it comes to innovation in the skincare industry. Their quest for perfect skin knows no bounds, and they’re famous for creating miracle products with ingredients you wouldn’t dream of associating with skincare — or any other cosmetic concern for that matter. They’ve made products using bee venom, sea kelp, pig collagen, and even starfish extracts. Presently, it is snail mucin, but what is interesting to know is that it wasn’t Korea which discovered the phenomenon.

Snail slime was first thought of as a skincare product in South America — farmers who were handling snails that were meant for shipment to France noticed that their hands became considerably softer. Subsequent research would show that this transformation was on account of the fact that the snail’s mucin, the secretion that the snail produces every time it was agitated, was bathed in glycolic acids, elastin and other such proteins that are known to help heal skin and make it fairer. Soon, snail mucin made its way into a number of South-American skincare products. It wasn’t until the South-Korean industry picked up on the trend, however, that snail mucin attained legitimacy as a skincare product.

This legitimacy is the result of the collective obsession that the country has not just with fair skin, but with beauty, and for doing whatever it takes to match its perceived notion of the perfect face. The Korean fascination with perfection is deep-rooted in its culture and has its roots in the feudal era, where the working class, such as farmers and labourers, could be identified by the tanned skin they got from working under the sun, whereas the nobility retained their pale skin by staying indoors. This notion of fair, flawless skin being a trait of the noble, wealthy and prosperous, has managed to remain ingrained in Koreans to date.

It isn’t just skincare that Korea is known for either. They’re also the world capital of Plastic Surgery, to the point where it’s not out-of-place for people to recommend rhinoplasty the way most others would recommend restaurants. Statements like “You’d look better with a jaw alignment” are commonplace, and aren’t considered offensive. In fact, young Koreans often receive corrective surgeries as birthday pre-sents.

All this technological development in cosmetics is a tragic waste if it serves an idea of beauty that can only be termed primitive.

It wouldn’t be right, though, to isolate Korea in its obsession with fair skin. It is something that is also prevalent among the people of Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, and China as well. There’s even a Chinese phrase which reiterates this sentiment — “One whiteness can cover three kinds of ugliness”. Women in these regions spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on skin-whitening, and the industry is poised to reach $20 billion by the time 2018 rolls around.

Reading about the white-skin craze in Korea and the countries surrounding it was nothing short of illuminating for me, for I had been of the opinion that it was only the South-Asian community that possessed this hideous fixation with fair skin. The Korean skincare and beauty industry is considered to be the most scientifically advanced among its peers, which, in my opinion, is something tragic. For, all that technological development is wasted, serving an idea of beauty that can only be termed primitive.

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