Asia's Very Own 'Fairness' Doctrine

Just like Botox, the practiced eye can tell if someone has been applying fair-skin creams, or fairness creams. There's a flat kind of paleness to the face, seemingly devoid of color and pigmentation; like a burn victim well on their way to recovery. Benazir Bhutto always struck me as the perfect example of over-enthusiastic application of fairness creams -- a surreal paleness all at once flat and unflattering.

And just like Botox, you're never going to influence our Asian sisters (and increasingly, our Asian brothers too) to steer clear of the fairness creams. Rich and famous people are always fair, aren't they? Just off the top of your head, I challenge you to name one darker skinned Bollywood actress. Can't? That's because you'd be hard pressed to find a single dusky skin among them. (Though you're never going to convince people to be honest about using creams. In India, I once asked a friend who had all the signs of using fairness creams if she thought they worked well. "I have no idea," she defensively mumbled, "I don't use them at all").

Fair skin, oh the magic of having fair skin! It can get you a cashed up husband, launch you in Bollywood, get you a job promotion and respect in the eyes of society. In India's newspaper wedding classifieds a girl will be promoted for her "wheatish" skin, which is better than being dark, but not as good as being "fair." Men looking out for the perfect bride will happily declare "caste no bar" but go onto specify that she must have "wheatish" or "fair" skin.

Put bluntly, dark skin is considered uncivilized in many parts of Asia. Westerners tend to flatter themselves that Asian women are trying to emulate us, but it is more about economic and social status than anything to do with the West. Dark people toil in the fields, do hard labor and are exposed to actual work. Fair people represent luxury and idleness, wealth and social standing.

For a few rupees in India -- the biggest fairness cream market in the world -- you can buy a tube or jar from your local snake oil merchant. Half of these products wouldn't meet the most rudimentary safety standards but they are eagerly bought with any disposable income that women (and increasingly men) might have. You can also buy hideously expensive whitening creams -- Western visitors to Asia will see whole lines by famous cosmetic houses aimed purely at the fairness obsessed local consumers. Duty-free shops at airports groan with fairness and whitening washes, masks, creams and serums.

There have been scares about fairness creams recently; products containing lead and dangerous amounts of chemicals, consumers being burnt by too much bleach or other dodgy ingredients. (Recent tests of 36 fairness creams done in Hong Kong found that eight of them had dangerous levels of mercury).

None of this seems to turn people off, and cosmetic companies use increasingly wild promises to sell their creams. Some come with "fairness indicators" -- cardboard strips you can hold up to your face to see the promised miracle conversion of your ugly dark skin to becoming 6 shades lighter in just one week.

Last month, the Indian Health Minister Mr. Anbumani Ramadoss acted to ensure that fairness creams provide a scientific evidence of their claims. "This needs to stop," he declared. "They cannot say within one week (that) you will be white and all this. They need to provide scientific evidence." I imagine his stern warnings fell on deaf, but fair, ears.

And it won't stop. The fairness cream industry rolls on, and Asian women fork out big bucks for the promise of a lighter skin, followed by a job promotion, parental approval, a better marriage and a happier life. Easy, huh?