Whitening cream = racism in a bottle?
Mon, Aug 25, 2008

CAIRO, EGYPT - Marwa wants a paler face and is willing to try a whole range of lightening creams that promise beauty, love and success to Arab women.

But such products have also been slammed as 'racism in a bottle'.

The 19-year-old Egyptian works for a hairdresser in the poor Cairo district of Bulaq al-Dakrur, and is spoilt for choice as cheap brands share shelf space with brand-name products that have found a niche in the Arab world.

Skin whitening using home-made or store-bought products has long been a tradition in Asia and Africa, but has now taken off commercially in the Middle East with Dutch-British company Unilever leading the market with its Fair and Lovely brand.

As women in the West compete for a year-round copper glow and pages in lifestyle magazines are devoted to self-tanning lotions, in the Arab world, beauty is defined by the paleness of a woman's skin.

And while beaches may be teeming during the summer months, many women go to great lengths to shade themselves from the sun, particularly in the villages of Egypt, Morocco and Syria.

For example, they cover their bodies up for weeks on end before a wedding, striving for what is deemed to be an ideal alabaster skin-tone.

'What is rare is expensive,' said sociology professor Hassan Ahmedof Cairo's Ain Shams University. 'Since in Egypt, like in the rest of the Arab world, olive skin is the most common, we prefer white skin,' he said.

The Middle East and North Africa market was a godsend for Unilever, which recognised the enormous potential in those countries mainly because of a growing young population.

According to the group, the sales of Fair and Lovely have risen by 15 per cent a year in the region since 2005, with a peak of 18 per cent last year.

Television advertisements for the cream deliver a simple message - that whiter skin is the key to a more successful life. Each ad has a similar theme: whether she wants to be a dancer or a doctor, a young woman's olive skin is an obstacle. But after using the cream she clinches her dream job, earns the recognition of her peers or gains the attention of the man she wants.

But despite the popularity of some of these creams, the ads have been criticised as racist.

Two groups on the social networking Internet site Facebook condemn the brand. One uses humour: 'Fair and Lovely cream is racist but I still use it.' The other is more harsh: 'Ban Fair and Lovely, racism in a bottle.'

Ms Habiba Hamid, who created one of the groups, feels that whitening creams 'exacerbate and capitalise on the kind of racism which privileges lighter skin over darker'.

'If the products themselves aren't banned, any form of advertising for them should be. They are clearly racist adverts,' she said.

But Unilever defends itself against such accusations, saying that the product responds to a market need.

'The desire to change or modify skin tone is universal. Depending on the notion of beauty prevalent in a particular society, this may be manifested either as lightening or darkening the existing skin tone. This desire cuts across cultures, income levels, educational levels and gender,' the group said in an e-mail interview.

Lightening creams are available in many forms, from unregulated brandless bottles to prescription creams aimed at treating acne scars and removing blemishes.

Dermatologist Rihab Sobhi says she has had to treat damage caused by the use of non-prescription skin products including lightening creams.

Patients come to her requiring treatment for everything from marks and scars on their skin to allergies caused by the creams or even burns.

Some whitening creams contain bleaching agents that are dangerous if used at high levels or too often, say beauticians.



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