The cosmetics industry has successfully engaged Bollywood stars to promote the notion of white is beautiful to both the expatriate and Arab populations of the Gulf region, but many lightening creams can have harmful side effects.
The advertisement shows an aspiring television presenter who seems to have it all: charm, good looks and an easy manner. The truth, however, dawns on her after she is rejected for a series of jobs: "Just before my fourth interview I realised an obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin."
The commercial for this "fairness cream" doesn't pull any punches. Neither do many similar adverts aimed at consumers in the Gulf, all of which carry the same basic message: the fairer your skin, the better your life will be. It isn't just a dream job that's in easy reach. In another commercial, which boasts "Total fairness in four weeks", the girl also gets her dream man. "Great job," says the suave director after his protegée's triumphant debut. "What are you doing at four?"
These adverts have found a successful audience in the Middle East, where the large expatriate population reinforces the idea of a hierarchy of colour, where fairness is exalted. Reena Mohan is the director of the documentary Skin Deep, which looks at how south Asian women perceive femininity and fairness. "I think because the UAE is so multicultural, there is greater exposure to different races who are fair, whether Caucasian, Filipino or Nepali. So it's not just what you felt about yourself back at home but also who you meet in the UAE. The complex may already have been there back home, but there is enough 'fairness' around you here to make you continue to feel inferior."
And Emirati women are not immune. Dr Fatma al Sayegh, professor of UAE and Gulf history studies at the UAE University in Al Ain, says: "I think it is not a culture of fairness as much as an obsession with the opposite. Some Emirati people here are darker than others and I remember when I was studying in America and England, the preferred skin type was tanned. The ideal man was tall, dark and handsome. It was the opposite to what western men looked like. Here, too, it is the same thing. People are obsessed with something that is not ordinary. Fair skin is not common, so people like to look unusually white."
Dr Sayegh says she has noticed a number of disturbing practices in some Gulf countries. These include women using a homemade white paste, partly derived from beauty products, on their faces when they go outside. "I was scared by the customs," she says. "They say it is part of their culture, that when they leave the house and they put on this powder, which is like a mask, it turns them into someone different.
"To them, using a fairness paste is the same thing as westerners coming here and making themselves darker by getting a suntan." While shooting her documentary in India, Ms Mohan was also taken aback by the popularity of skin-whitening creams. She noticed that brides in the slums of Delhi and middle-class urban women on the streets of Chennai were bound by their common goal to achieve fairness. "That's when it sank in how obsessed women and men were with the notion of fairness," she says. "Again and again, we were told that brides will get their faces bleached before their wedding. No wonder that whitening creams are the biggest-selling items from the entire range of cosmetics. That's why popular foreign brands such as Avon and Revlon have also started marketing whitening creams here."
It is important to differentiate between products that whiten the skin cosmetically and those that bleach it using chemicals. Several reputable brands market their products as whitening creams. These are designed to whiten the skin cosmetically. Some contain sunscreen to prevent tanning; others contain white pigments to make the skin lighter in colour. You are effectively painting your skin white. For example, Shisheido, from Japan (another culture that values fair skin) offers several whitening products, as do brands such as Nivea, Estée Lauder and Olay. Often these are the same products that are sold all around the world, but which are marketed differently here. For example, one product that is sold purely as a sunblock in the UK is sold as a whitening cream in this region. Although they are pandering to the culture of fairness, the products themselves are not harmful.
They are dramatically different from creams that offer to lighten the skin physically by artificial means, often using harsh chemicals such as mercury or hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is a phenol. When applied to the skin, it inhibits the production of melanin, the body's natural primary defence against ultraviolet sun rays. It has been banned in the European Union because of fears that is is carcinogenic. Mercury is a highly toxic chemical.
In November 2008, the Health Authority in Abu Dhabi banned 10 skin-lightening creams because they contained mercury and other banned metals. The products were from countries such as India and Germany, and included brands such as Jialoi Miraculous Cream from China, and Ideal Cream from Beshara Baroodi, manufactured in Beirut. What makes these creams particularly dangerous is the effect they have on skin coupled with the harsh desert climate, according to Dr Allen Counter, a scientist with the Harvard Medical School.
His studies on the effects of mercury - the base used in many of the creams - has revealed that it slowly strips the skin of melanin. Without adequate levels of melanin, the skin is simply incapable of dealing with light. But the worst combinations are creams that masquerade as an all-in-one skin-lightening and sunblock cream. "The combination of mercury to remove the melanin will perhaps enhance the possibility of damage to the skin. And the two of them don't go together. It creates a very dangerous situation," he says. "If one applies skin-lightening cream to remove the melanin, then it sort of dissolves it if you use SPF. This makes it even more dangerous, through these artificial chemical processes, where the climate is extremely sun-exposed."
When Dr Counter was researching the harmful effects of mercury exposure in children in the US, he stumbled across pockets of women and children of African, Asian and Middle Eastern descent who had higher than average levels of mercury. He discovered this was a result of using skin-lightening or skin-bleaching creams. "The children ingested mercury as a result of their parents using these products to lighten their skin," he says. "The parents do it to make themselves more appealing within their own culture but also among people in the dominant society (ie, white Americans). They assume it enhances their beauty, that lighter skin is a greater currency, that you try to make yourself more appealing and more viable. They enhance beauty to the detriment of their health. You cannot separate medical science from culture."
So popular has been the appeal of fairness creams directed towards women that three years ago, companies discovered a new segment for their products: men. The Emami Group launched Fair and Handsome in India in 2005. Following its success, the makers of Fair and Lovely launched Menz Active in 2006, though it is not imported to the UAE. However, Fair and Handsome was launched in the GCC markets in 2008. The GCC skin market for the Emami group is worth US$71 million (Dh260 million) yearly, with skin-whitening products making up about 20 per cent of the market and growing at 25 per cent yearly. The men's skin-lightening cream is Emami's highest grossing product in the UAE.
Skin lightening products - from soaps and lotions to facewash - are among the most profitable skin-care ranges in the Indian market, making up to US$200 million (Dh735 million) in sales annually, according to industry estimates. Lately, that popularity has been heightened by the endorsements they receive, especially from Bollywood. In another TV advertisement, a brother is scolded by his sister for using her entire jar of fairness cream. Cue Shahrukh Khan, the actor, who intervenes and introduces the man to a skin-lightening cream, Emami's Fair and Handsome cream for men.
Khan, Bollywood's golden boy, created a storm over his endorsement. Dark-skinned, he was criticised for endorsing more than a product. He was accused of perpetuating stereotypes. "Fairness creams are a product of racism and actors who promote fairness creams are guilty of racism, too," says the Bollywood critic, Jerry Pinto. The fact that Bollywood has promoted the idea of fair skin among Indians stems from the basic requirement for any male or female actor: they must be fair. They are considered role models to a society that extends beyond the subcontinent's borders and into expatriate communities. How Indian film stars look, what they wear and what they claim to use to enhance themselves are understood to be the benchmarks for achieving perfection and success in life.
"This is not just Bollywood. Even in regional films, across the country, actors are required to be fair," Pinto adds. "Bollywood and the other film industries are culpable simply by virtue of their exclusionary policies and their insistence on looks over talent." In the skincare section of a supermarket in Abu Dhabi, Mr and Mrs Lal, originally from India, are shopping for skin-lightening creams and are spoiled for choice.
Mr Lal says he would prefer his wife to use a skin-lightening product to "enhance" her complexion rather than "cover" it up with make-up. "Using make-up is immodest. It is for modern women. My wife is simple and I support my wife if she wants to buy a cream that will make her fair. At least these creams will give her a more lasting colour. "I don't want to use these products because I think women should be fair, but not men. There is nothing wrong with it. Everyone back home uses it but I am not sure if my wife will become fair. It's worth a try," he says.
"The sun here is too strong for her so she has to protect her colour and if she can become fair at the same time, why not?"
‘I am proud of my colour’
The TV advert mentioned at the start of Suryatapa Bhattacharya's article has been dubbed in Arabic and broadcast across the Arab world. Its message is clear: with lighter-coloured skin comes a better life. The preference for fairer skin is a big issue in the UAE, where it is not unknown for families to rule out marriage with those of a darker skin colour. Simply put, the lighter a girl's skin the better, as it is considered a sign of beauty in the UAE and in the greater Arab region. As such, the use of skin-lightening products and treatments is common here. Eiman Mohamed, a 22-year-old Sudanese girl, explains: "Stereotyping from the past carries on today. Not so much in work, but in terms of marriage or relationships. Everybody has their preference. Some people just prefer lighter-coloured people. As for me, I am proud of my colour and don't use any of these lightening products." However, she adds that things are starting to change.
"Now there are darker models and not just the lighter-skinned ones we used to see in front of us day and night on TV and on the streets on billboards. With new celebrities such as Rihanna and Beyoncé, people are realising that just because they are dark, they don't have to be ashamed of their colour, but can be dark and proud." The preference for lighter skin is a cultural issue and not related to relgious practice. "Islam doesn't promote this idea at all," says Eiman.
"Muslims are taught not to discriminate between one another based on colour or nationality or anything of that sort, so it is a wonder how the idea of becoming lighter is 'better' continues to be promoted in this region through media." Even so, many Arab women continue to cover up more during the summer to escape unwanted tanning. Arwa al Iryani, from Yemen, said: "I wear gloves and big sunglasses and socks in the summer in the UAE because I don't want to get any darker than I already am. Although I am boiling under my gloves and socks, at least I don't get any darker." Basant Mohamed, a 23-year-old student from Al Ain, said the pressure to become lighter was just another burden forced upon her by society. "It's just one of the pressures, not just in the Arab world, but in many other places. For some reason it is thought by most women that men are more attracted to white girls. People are just brainwashed into thinking that way. Some women get these skin-lightening products, not because their husbands ask them to, but because they think they would look better."