The previous post on whitening creams has been cross-posted on 2 facebook walls (YAFA and CFC) and Twitter. The responses have been enlightening (pun definitely intended), and I thank those who contributed. I also thank Jia and Tove for their particular interest and support, as well as Angela, Hannah and Sophie who discussed this topic with me.
One of the very interesting topics that came up was another use for these whitening creams. In my ignorance, I had not known that these were also being used by Goths. There were at least two accounts of this happening, and I can only suppose that these are not isolated incidents. This indeed is a fascinating phenomenon. However, I would still argue that there is a fundamental difference between the two uses.
I think that the following is a good analogy: comparing the two uses of skin whiteners is like comparing body art to genital mutilation. Body art and genital mutilation are both culturally founded and locally accepted. These practices can be quite similar. If we were to be strictly pluralistic, we would accept both practices as cultural heritage. However, one is based on voluntary self-expression and the other is involuntary oppression.
Similarly, whilst the act of whitening one’s skin is the same, the meaning is completely different, even polar opposite. Goth culture is an alternative culture, and skin whitening is a part of a rejection of mainstream culture. In contrast, for Asian women, skin whitening is a desperate attempt to participate in mainstream culture.
Even in India, Korea, Philippines, Western cultural hegemony is evident. Western countries are major exporters of cultural materials, and these are more numerous and astronomically better funded than locally produced materials. This state of affairs is exacerbated by local producers also put a premium on whiteness in response.
My experience is in Korea and New Zealand. Korean cinemas are filled with Hollywood blockbusters – there would be even more, if it wasn’t for the quota. Flipping through Korean women’s magazines, I found that although marketing is targeted towards Korean women, the models are white or photoshopped white. For those of you who have not had the experience, I cannot stress enough that it is abundantly clear that whiteness is the ideal, whether one is born with it or not.
New Zealand is similar, though there are significantly differences. Majority of women here are, in fact, white. However, beauty is still more associated with whiteness and portrayals of people of colour are more often in problem contexts, such as vaccinations or drunk driving. One striking example that Tove found last year was a Peter Alexander poster that was displayed in the window of the High Street branch. There was a white female model posing as Snow White, surrounded by black children. Let us guess who we were meant to aspire to be or to have. If there is an iota of doubt, keep in mind that this store does not sell children’s clothes.
Going back to the issue of skin whiteners, take a look at the pictures below. Mirza is an ambassador of The Body Shop. One picture is an advertisement for The Body Shop and the other is Mirza in real life.
The fact is, vast majority of consumers of skin whiteners are women of colour. This is most clear in marketing, which is almost solely targeted towards women of colour. There is a reason as to why The Body Shop’s Shiso range was not on the global website but heavily featured in the Asian ones, and more difficult to find on the Australian one.
The history of whitening creams is a tragic one in Asia. Many women have succumbed to cancer as a result. This is well documented, and I will refer you to one such article in Lancet, the preeminent medical journal: Women have Deadly Desire for Paler Skin in the Philippines (Easton, 1998). Women are so desperate that they have, and are continuing to, risk their lives to become whiter. And we cannot patronise these women, whose life prospects may well benefit from having whiter skin. This too is well documented, and I will refer you to a newspaper article: Skin Whitener Advertisement Labelled Racist (Sidner, 2009) [http://articles.cnn.com/2009-09-09/world/india.skin_1_skin-nivea-racist?_s=PM:WORLD].
I do not blame the users of such products, nor do I criticize the Goth culture. But given the historical and cultural context, I maintain that skin whiteners are symptoms and instruments of global Western imperialism/capitalism and its cultural hegemony. And as such, I do blame racism in the media, and marketing used by multinational conglomerates that sell and reap the benefits at the cost of confidence and lives of women.
I will be writing at least one more follow-up post on this topic, on another comparison that is often used between skin whiteners and tanning beds. I will be keeping an eye on the comments if anyone would like to make themselves heard.