Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mirror mirror: who is fairest of all?

I was struck and a bit confused by what some of the women vendors selling souvenirs outside Angkor Wat were wearing. In the 90 degree (F) heat, these women were dressed in long-sleeve shirts (sometimes double-layered), long pants, gloves, scarves and hats. Sweating profusely in my tank top and Capri pants, I asked one of the women if she was all bundled up because she was cold. She laughed and replied, “want to be white-white,” meaning she was covering up to prevent any of her skin from getting tanned by the scorching sun. I was shocked for a moment, especially since the heat seemed unbearable in that much clothing, but then just saddened by the consistency with which (non-European) cultures equate fair skin with beauty.

In India, Fair & Lovely cream launched in the 1970s and is old news, with newer, up-market brands like Garnier introducing skin lightening products targeting both men and women with TV ads that promise to “lighten your skin by two shades.” Here are some advertisements from different brands across Asia.

Unfortunately, social hierarchy and economic class in many countries across Africa and Asia have historically been divided by color lines. Whether because of the white colonial history of these countries or because of the difference in color of the wealthy and the working class (who spent countless hours toiling outdoors under the sun) its sad that what I consider an antiquated beauty idea still holds such importance across cultures today.

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