Is Face-Whitening Widget Beyond the Pale?

Andy Winter, Sky News (UK), July 15, 2010

An application allowing Facebook users in India to digitally whiten their profile pictures has sparked controversy.

It has been launched to promote its range of skin-lightening products for men, advertised by Bollywood star Shahid Kapoor.

The Facebook page leading to the application–called Vaseline Men BE PREPARED–has so far attracted more than 600 fans.

The market for skin-lightening cream in India is estimated to be worth more than £325m a year.

Sales of products for men grew by 25% in 2009.

TK Oommen, a sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said: “Indians believe that if you have fair skin you belong to the higher caste.”

Indeed, one customer said: “If I don’t make (my face) fairer, I’m worried I’ll have trouble finding a woman to marry me.”

But the idea has drawn criticism with some arguing it reinforces negative stereotypes about darker skin.

Describing Vaseline’s campaign as “uncomfortable”, Alexis Madrigal, a columnist for magazine The Atlantic, added: “(It) is a rather icky reminder of the ‘pigmentocracy’ that exists in many countries.”

The creams work by targeting melanine, the skin pigment that absorbs darkening ultra-violet light.

The cosmetics market leader in India, Emami, has run into fierce criticism for its advertising of ‘Fair and Lovely’ for women and ‘Fair and Teen’ for teenagers.

A 2003 campaign featuring a dark-skinned woman who was unable to get married was branded “highly racist” by Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

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