You don’t have to look far to see adverts aimed at white people about tanning: tanning beds, spray tans, get five shades darker gradually with a sunless tanner. Seems perfectly innocent, right? Why would you want to be pale when you could be golden?
It gets a lot darker when you realise that the opposite applies to adverts aimed at BAME’s, that adverts targeted towards them are about how to lighten your skin.
With adverts from Fair and Lovely and even Nivea, dark skinned people are shown living a life without love and good career prospects, until they start using the cream, their skin lightens, and they fall in love with someone gorgeous or get the job of their dreams. Women are shown using creams that will “restore their skin to its natural fairness”. In countries around the world, particularly ones with strong links to European colonialism, being white and fair is linked to power and status. In India, it has strong links with the caste system, as those in higher castes historically were whiter.
A friend of Indian heritage said she’s always felt pressure to be lighter because that’s what the culture pushes. There’s a stigma around dark skin that it isn’t beautiful, which, of course, isn’t true. She understands why people lighten their skin, even though she wouldn’t. She’s been told she’s “lucky [she’s] so fair”, and she feels an element of pride around that on the topic of her skin colour in relation to others, she definitely feels like she fits in with everyone until she or her and her family are the only non-white people somewhere, and then she feels nervous of judgement or racism.
A Black British friend says she thinks skin lightening is “sad, terrible, awful, offensive but sadly common. Even in other cultures, not just in Black ones, across the world light skin is associated with positive connotations, such as being wealthy, pure, more feminine etc. As a black woman, I’ve never wanted to be white, even when I didn’t think I was beautiful at a very young age. Though, I’m considered a ‘lighty’ by my black peers, I’m often alienated in a way or people think that I’m fond of myself or proud for having a lighter shade and that’s not the case, I love my skin because it’s mine, and others should too. Often people judge the shade of my skin and associate it with my ‘level of blackness’, I’ve been considered mixed race, half black, ‘not really black’ and the source of this is deep rooted. No one should feel like they have to change such a massive part of their physical appearance to accept themselves, and that goes for anything from plastic surgery onwards, but you’ll find that even opinions on that differ in Asian regions.”
Unsurprisingly, products to make your skin lighter through bleaching contain products to slow the production of melanin, which is harmful. Despite these products and adverts being banned across the world, notably in India in 2014 where they banned ‘colourist’ advertising and in Ghana in 2016 inning skin-whitening creams due to unregulated ingredients, the industry is still worth billions. According to Global Industry Analysts it will be worth £17.5 billion by 2020. And of course, a lot of the products are just a waste of money and don’t work.
And yet, the products are still sold, some places officially but commonly on the black market – in Nigeria, up to 70% of women say they use bleaching creams regularly.
When I asked some white friends about how they felt about tanning, one said: “Firstly, I have never and will never go in a tanning booth after watching Final Destination. I’ve also never bought any tanning products but that is because I am naturally tanned and when I go abroad I get even more tanned so it’s never really been necessary for me to apply any form of fake tan to get a tan. I definitely love my skin tone more when I have a nice tan, I feel healthier and I think genuinely happier because of this.”
Another said: “I’m pretty self conscious about my skin – especially my arms. I used to, and still do, have some kind of skin ailment which GPs refuse to diagnose. In terms of tanning, I grew up abroad. I was pretty tanned when I moved here in 2004 (7). I went to a primary school filled was stuck-up teachers kids who called me “P*ki”. This was a great introduction to the British population. Now I’m pretty white. I conform more. And actually I don’t really like it. To me, my paleness feels unhealthy, representing the numbers of hours I have spent inside and working when all I wanted to do was anything outside.”
So among the BAME people I asked, the mentality seems to be they feel the pressure to be lighter but love their skin regardless. And responses from the white people I asked seem to associate paleness with a lack of health and happiness, which is interesting when the mentality around being fairer in these skin lightening adverts is about increasing your happiness when you’re paler. The takeaway from this is most definitely that we need to increase education, reduce the stigma, and encourage people to love their skin rather than want to change it.