Skin whitening advertising associates light skin with idealized beauty that all women can attain, irrespective of nationality, race, or class. While the ubiquitous appeal of such advertising is culturally producing and reproducing idealized gendered bodies and gendered identities from the global North to the global South, skin whitening remains uncontested in South Asia. How are gender norms negotiated in skin whitening advertising? Are the imperialistic connotations of linking light skin with idealized beauty being challenged by the South Asian women?
The history of skin whitening in the postcolonial subcontinent can be traced to the cultural impacts of the conquests encountered in the Indian subcontinent. From the light-skinned Aryans who settled down in the North to the dark-skinned Dravidians in the South, the subcontinent exhibited many skin color variations. While the true pre-colonial origins of skin whitening remains disputed, it was the most pronounced during the nineteenth century British colonialism, where racial hierarchies, based on skin color differences, became a tool for colonial governance.
Anne McClintock in Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (1995) and Anandi Ramamurthy in Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising (2003) note that the nineteenth century soap advertising campaign reproduced skin color as a marker of class, gender, and race identity. During colonialism, soap advertising transformed ‘scientific racism’ into ‘commodity racism’ by representing soap as a signifier for ‘imperial glamour’ and ‘racial potency’. By 1889, the market extended into many areas of the world, including the Indian subcontinent.
Drawing on the racist iconography of the soap advertising campaign in which the soap washed away the ‘stigma’ of racial and class degeneration, today’s skin whitening cream advertisements can be said to represent ‘commodity racism’. By removing from the skin the ‘stigma’ of dark skin, whitening creams correlate light skin with beauty and socioeconomic progress. The discourse of such contemporary advertising incorporates both racism and ‘colorism’. The term ‘colorism’ conceptualized as a privileging of the lighter skinned over the darker-skinned within a community of color is said to happen over time when the predominantly colored communities internalize ‘white superiority,’ to create socioeconomic hierarchies. While today the soap advertisements cannot be shown, because of their blatant attempt to naturalize the ideology of ‘white superiority’, advertisers now employ semiotic manipulations to convey similar messages.
This association between light skin and idealized beauty and socioeconomic progress for women is best explained by the concept of ‘social capital’ as defined by Margaret Hunter. In If You’re Light You’re Alright: Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color (2002), Hunter uses the concept of ‘social capital’ to analyze the impact of skin color on the lives of African American and Mexican American women. She observes that most of the literature on skin color hierarchies points to the ideology of white prestige, but does not focus on its impact on women. Hunter defines ‘social capital’ as ‘a form of prestige related to things such as social status, reputation, and social networks. All of these forms of prestige can be converted into economic or educational capital.’ She argues that light skin is associated with beauty which in turn acts as a ‘social capital’ for women of color. She notes that this association can be traced back to the ideologies of white supremacy and patriarchy as practiced during slavery and colonialism. While Hunter acknowledges that physical appearance influences the status of both men and women, she argues that it is a far more important characteristic for women. She contends that even though people of color may not express a verbal desire for light skin, studies reflect that there is a strong preference for lighter skinned women by men from the same racial or ethnic group. Her study concludes that light skin as a form of ‘social capital’ influences the life chances for women of color, because when light skin with its history of colonialism and slavery, gets associated with idealized beauty, then positive attributes are linked to this beauty and as a result, light skinned women of color perform better in the areas of personal income, education, and spousal status. Hunter’s study can be critiqued for its essentialism, as she herself states that beauty can be perceived differently by different people and dark skinned women can compensate for their appearance by striving for high-status achievements such as education. Nonetheless, Hunter offers an effective analytical tool in the reading of skin whitening advertisements in which the product acts as a signifier for ‘social capital’ for women of color.
When the European attempted to enforce commodity fetishism on Africa, there were resistances by the Africans who either rejected the commodity or altered it for their needs. However, today’s global western consumer culture guises accepting ‘commodity racism’ as a self-empowering tool. As the Foucauldian analysis of the power of disciplinary practices suggest, the diffuse nature of power makes it difficult to resist, and instead disciplinary practices get internalized in the form of self-surveillance. In case of advertising, its magical transformation rhetoric and ubiquitous nature disguises social coercion even more, making it difficult to resist. Nonetheless, multinational corporations are expanding their consumer base by incorporating local cultural themes to create an affinity between the products and their dark-skinned female consumers. When skin whitening advertisements targeting young women are aired in postcolonial settings, with a predominantly dark-skinned population, local and international media watch dogs need to read the advertisements for their gender and racist connotations. Further research of the prevalence of skin whitening advertising is urgently needed to counter the continuing attempts of damaging the identity formation of young South Asian women.