Skin whitening is big business. There were over 6 million hits when I typed the phrase into Google. In some parts of the world possessing pale skin has taken on the proportions of a status symbol. According to The Guardian report on skin whitening in Thailand "fair skin is associated with opportunity, success and status". It's been predicted that the global skin lightening market will reach $10 billion by 2015.
The fact that some of these creams are a health hazard containing mercury doesn't seem to deter those women intent on achieving lighter skin.
"Skin depigmentation is common in Africa," according to the news report 'Whiter skin in 15 days': fury in Dakar at skin whitening cream advert.
"We must convince women that being dark skinned is not a shameful thing," said Safeworld for Women.
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As reported in Skin lightening cream factory busted in Bangladesh, "[i]n Bangladesh, neighbouring India and many Asian countries there is a strong cultural preference for fairer skin."
Yet while some of the world's women are striving for a whiter shade of pale there's an equally enthusiastic group intent on making their fair skin darker.
Forget skin whitening creams. Some people are after tanning solutions to turn their pasty skin into something browner. The latest Fashion Quarterly magazine devotes two pages to self-tanning products - also known as "the cheat's way to appear thinner and healthier almost instantaneously". Evidently various lotions, mousses, creams, bronzers and gels hold the key to wonderfully tanned skin.
Some people, such as All Black Ma'a Nonu, acquire their tropical glow from a professional spray-tan salon while, controversially, there are also many women who turn to sun-beds to transform themselves into bronzed goddesses. Sun-beds, of course, have come under intense scrutiny from health professionals and consumer organisations for the detrimental effects they can have on users.
Consumer says, "Sunbed use is associated with a range of skin cancers (including melanoma, which is the most life-threatening form of skin cancer). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified sunbeds as 'carcinogenic to humans' and they're in the agency's highest risk category - along with tobacco, asbestos and alcohol." The NZ College of Appearance Medicine is supporting a bill to tighten regulation of the sun-bed industry.
The preoccupation with skin colour as a beauty accessory has parallels with the hair-care industry which ensures women feel perpetually dissatisfied with their hair in its natural state. In fact the hair care industry has somehow made us feel our hair is simultaneously too curly and too straight. That's quite a feat. After all, how many of us own both heated rollers and straightening irons? We're never content with what we have. Some of us want straighter hair and some covet curlier locks. While some women potentially damage their health in pursuit of paler skin, others do the same in the name of darker skin. And, of course, the lucrative beauty industry wouldn't have it any other way.
What's your view on the pressures that inspire people to want to modify the colour of their skin? Have you ever artificially made your skin darker or lighter? Do you want to?