A couple of years ago, I ended up as an art director on a shoot for a skin whitening cream. I needed the experience and I was paid cash, so I put my moral reservations aside and dived right in. The model, featured in the ad, was a tall, beautiful, African woman, with flawless, translucent skin and big almond eyes. She had never used a fairness cream until that day. During the shoot, she refused to put any cream on her face, and only applied small amounts to her hand, which she would wipe off after every camera take. She didn’t seem to think too highly of the product.
Thinking it couldn’t be that bad, I decided to take a glob of the yellowish, foul smelling cream and apply it generously to my arms. I didn’t get far, because it felt as if I was rubbing petroleum jelly mixed with wax into my arms – thick, sticky, warm to touch and very uncomfortable. The initial burning sensation had me worried, but I figured it was just friction heat from trying to spread the cream evenly across my arms. Needless to say, it didn’t turn out to be a pleasant experience and I reaffirmed my resolve to never put anything that resembled petrol pump merchandise on myself ever again.
Whitening creams are a scourge on earth, not only because they offer a solution to a fake problem and perpetuate the worst stereotypes among women, but because of the damage they cause. Hence, I, for one, am thrilled that the Minister of Climate Change, Zartaj Gul, has started a crackdown on these tubes and vials of evil in Pakistan.
In our country, the use of whitening creams is rampant. Women are often subjected to the ‘white-o-meter’ – a term that is jokingly used to refer to situations where women’s fairness levels determine whether they will have the chance to be selected in a ‘rishta’ scenario, find work, or end up in the entertainment industry. According to this standard, the ‘fairer’ you are, the more opportunities you have in life.
The pressure on darker skinned women to ‘lighten’ their skin is real. Bleach treatments are thrust at them during regular salon visits. They are advised to wear foundation several shades lighter to compensate for their dark pigment; kabuki faces are extolled – try hard you might, but you can’t escape this obsession with fairness.
This mindset around skin colour has led to the burgeoning of the whitening cream industry in Pakistan, with each brand coughing up a chemical mixture that claims more potency than the competition. Until now, there has been no monitoring of the products, which has resulted in sub-standard ingredients and toxic materials being used in the manufacturing of these creams, most of which sell for very low prices - another sign (though not always accurate) of a compromise in quality.
An examination of the top selling 59 brands of whitening creams sold in Pakistan revealed that 56 of them contain excess amounts of mercury, the substance that inhibits melanin generation in skin resulting in whiteness. Mercury can cause damage to skin as well as vital organs and can also lead to psychological problems. If not disposed of properly, it can end up in the water system, and eventually into the human food chain, thus, harming both people and environment.
Cultural and social pressure means that women will continue to use these products, regardless of how toxic and dangerous they are. And if they don’t care about their own health, they will hardly bother about the environment. Acute monitoring of the industry is the only way one can expect to inject some sort of responsible behaviour among the manufacturers. Unfortunately, as is the case with most such crackdowns, rogue manufacturers go underground temporarily, only to resurface when time favours them again. In the meantime, one hopes that in a God-fearing country like ours, people will start to appreciate God’s creations, the way he intended them to be.