Asian Whitening Cream: Raising Issues of Status and Color

still from commercial for Emani's skin whitenerIf you ever thought that women were the only ones who primp and pamper, think again. According to a recent article by CNN, Asian skin whitening cream, which used to be primarily directed toward women, has found a new market in men.

The report zeroed in on a whitening cream commercial aired in India, where a love-struck young man bemoans to his friend, “I am unlucky because of my face,” to which his friend replies, “Not your face, but the color of your face.” The solution? A men's skin whitening cream of course.

A study found that sales for male grooming products rise 20 percent each year. In rural India, sales have increased by over 100 percent. Nor are these product brands obscure; they include household names like Nivea and Garnier.

The attraction to whiter skin exists as a byproduct of the separation between social classes. The working class, subject to long hours of labor in the sun, possessed darker skin than the nobility, who didn't have to perform outdoor labor. Fair skin became a symbol of wealth and status — and this concept has remained in many parts of the world.

One salon owner, Jawed Habib, mentioned how it also has to do with India’s fascination with all things foreign. "We always have a complex towards a white skin, towards foreign skin or foreign hair," Jawed Habib says.

One of Habib’s customers, Deepak Rajput, explains, “Everybody wants to look good. Everybody wants to look handsome and beautiful.”

There may not be great fault in that, but in this case, skin tone partialities hint at a more complex social issue within the Indian community. These ad campaigns, which reinforce stereotypes and solidify stratifications in wealth, class and caste, also speak deeply of racist sentiment, as Brinda Karat from the Indian Parliament pointed out.

"I mean at a time when we're talking about talents and skills, and the need for the accessibility to that to develop our potential; what does it do to dark persons' self esteem?" Karat says. "I think it should be stopped."

Here's a video from CNN.com, "Skin whitener advertisements labeled racist:"

Photo of a still from a commercial for Emani, a skin whitener, courtesy of CNN.com