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  • Becky McCall — United Kingdom

Fighting light skin bias in UK’s South Asian diaspora

South Asian communities in the UK continue to grapple with toxic side effects of skin lightening practices. There is hope the younger generation can break the cycle and promote acceptance of diverse skin tones.  


South Asian communities in the UK continue to grapple with the mental and physical toll of colourism and skin lightening practices. Photo: Anete Lusina

Priya* remembers back when she was a teenager, the Indian woman at the corner shop kept a special notebook under the counter. It held the ‘biodata’ of the younger members of the community—essentially, personal information that was used as the basis for marriage matchmaking of local girls and boys.

 

This community shop was in east London but could have been anywhere in the UK where South Asian diaspora live in large numbers. The biodata included details such as caste, food habits (vegetarian or meat eater), height, and other criteria that the community considers key to a successful partnership. 

 

Skin colour—commonly graded as fair, ‘wheatish’, or dark within the community, as against the distinction between black and white elsewhere around the world—was, and still largely is a significant factor in the matchmaking process.

 

“I remember my grandma told me to go meet this woman and give her my biodata,” Priya says. “If you are a darker-skinned girl, they’d match you only with a darker-skinned guy—or not match you at all. A darker-skinned girl wouldn’t usually be matched with a lighter-skinned guy.”

 

Parents play a prominent role in the matchmaking process and skin tone can be a deciding factor in the choice of a partner for a child. “Sometimes the family members of a potential match may meet a girl, only to say, ‘Oh, no, she's too dark, so we're not interested’,” Priya says.

 

The preference for lighter skin is so entrenched in some sections of the South Asian diaspora in the UK, as it is in India, that men and women are driven to expose their skin to noxious bleaching chemicals in an attempt to lighten it and improve their chances of finding a marriage partner and getting ahead in life in general.


Generations-old obsession with skin tone


Dr Divya Khanna is a British doctor of Indian descent with an interest in dermatology at the University of Birmingham. In one of the first studies of its kind, Khanna examined the reasons why people from the British Indian population choose to lighten skin with non-prescription products.

Most respondents were driven by an open, internalised racism, marked by shame and stigma against dark-skinned members of the community.

Crucially, the study also examined how and why the community has continued to discriminate against dark skin even after emigrating from India, where such bias has persisted for generations. 

 

Overall, Khanna says, she found most respondents were driven by an open, internalised racism, marked by shame and stigma against dark-skinned members of the community. However, the study also found a notable distinction between the first-, second-, and third-generation diaspora.


“With the third generation, there were still remnants of some fair skin ideals, but watered down,” Khanna says. One of the participants, for example, when asked about skin tone preferences in seeking a partner, said, ‘I don't mind, but obviously I prefer them to have fairer skin.’ Other participants mentioned dating apps and the preference for lighter-skinned men and women, who get more hits.

 

Priya, who leads a fairly westernised life with traditional roots, is a 30-something woman of Gujarati heritage with a naturally lighter skin tone than many British Indians. She says her mother always had at home a tube of ‘Fair and Lovely’, a skin whitening cream widely used in India. Priya only used it occasionally in her younger days, but remembers her parents and grandparents preparing homemade skin lightening treatments.

 

“They'd make a paste with chickpea flour and turmeric and scrub our faces with it to exfoliate and supposedly lighten the skin,” Priya says. “We’d wait for the smeared paste to dry before rubbing it off our face.”

 

The study also identified a preference for light skin that is perpetuated by the broader British society and culture. One participant said, ‘When I’m at work, it’s like there’s a magnifying glass held to my every mistake…in contrast to the benefit of doubt sometimes my [white] colleagues get.’


Damage from toxic skin lightening products

 

Skin lightening is symptomatic of a deeper and worrying issue—colourism, a form of discrimination that favours light-skinned members within the same ethnic group.

“Skin lightening products often contain hydroquinone and mercury, which are highly toxic and, in the worst cases, can lead to mercury poisoning, including psychiatric, neurological, and kidney problems.”

Among other factors, colourism in India is commonly linked to British colonialism and Eurocentric standards of beauty, and the caste system with its perpetrated notions of ‘fairer’ and ‘superior’ upper castes and ‘darker’ and ‘inferior’ lower castes. Interestingly, Hindu religion has several dark-skinned deities such as the powerful goddess Kali and Krishna, an avatar of the supreme protector Vishnu.


In a world where appearance often dictates first impressions, skin problems can carry a heavy stigma and, often, socioeconomic consequences such as hiring bias and other workplace-related discrimination. While there is some pushback against skin lightening practices in the UK, in India non-prescription lightening products continue to be in great demand, forming around half of the country’s skincare market.

 

Khanna says skin lightening products, especially those unregulated, can cause extreme damage. “Skin lightening products often contain hydroquinone and mercury, which are highly toxic and, in the worst cases, can lead to mercury poisoning, including psychiatric, neurological, and kidney problems,” she says. 


Off-prescription hydroquinone and mercury-containing products are illegal in the UK, US, and Europe. But these may be brought back from trips abroad or even bought online.

 

“With the mercury- and hydroquinone-containing products, there are noticeable side effects,” Khanna says. “Some people experience permanent scarring and a lot of irritation, allergic reactions, as well as unintented cosmetic effects such as discolouration—a bluish-black darkening of the skin. Longer-term use can lead to premature ageing, thinning of the skin, and predisposition to cancer from sun exposure.” 


Fostering acceptance of skin tone diversity

 

As with a large section of the Indian population, diaspora communities in the UK too are heavily influenced by advertising and the entertainment industry, which has traditionally shown a strong preference for lighter skin.



Growing acceptance of diverse skin tones may lead to a drop in the use of skin lightening products among the UK diaspora. Photo: Jacob Lund

“It's interesting to see that this is a development in the West and not in India, where skin whitening continues unabated. The Indian advertising and film industries are the biggest culprits in perpetuating this trend.”

 

But there are signs of a growing acceptance of diverse skin tones, which may lead to a drop in the use of skin lightening products among the UK diaspora. The period television drama Bridgerton, set in mid-18th century England and one of the most watched Netflix series to date, is a case in point, Khanna says. Like numerous historical dramas before it, Bridgerton has characters who are well-spoken and well-heeled gentry, but with one landmark difference: the romantic leads in the second season are played by two South Asian women, both with markedly darker skin tones.

 

This is not only a significant departure from the norm in the world of film casting, but it also sends a wider sociocultural message that the natural colour and tone of someone’s skin should be celebrated on screen as well as off it.

 

“One of the main characters became very popular, and since then I think there’s been a bit of a drive to increase the representation of deeper skin tones in the media,” Khanna explains. “But it's interesting to see that this is a development in the West and not in India, where skin whitening continues unabated. The Indian advertising and film industries are the biggest culprits in perpetuating this trend.”

 

Khanna believes the UK’s rich tapestry of multicultural communities makes it much easier for people of South Asian heritage to accept a diversity of skin tones. “There’s less pressure to whiten in the UK than in India,” she says.

 

She explains that third-generation participants in her study bleached less, but they still did report an internal conflict. Younger people were torn between older generational family pressures and habits around skin lightening, and their acceptance of their natural skin tone born of contemporary thinking and attitudes.


Next generation embracing change

 

Living in a community and a broader society that accepts diversity of skin tone offers significant benefits for mental health and wellbeing, explains Dr Alia Ahmed, a dermatologist in Berkshire in the UK who specialises in psychodermatology. She sees many patients who have spent a large part of their lives trying to lighten their skin tone and tries to help from the inside out. 


"Role models and celebrities often have skin tones that are much lighter than their natural tone, and everyone knows they lighten it, perpetuating the notion that darker skin is undesirable.”

“Skin lightening may be seen as a mechanism to cope with feelings of low self-esteem in people who constantly have a voice in their head telling them they are not good enough because their skin is not light enough, or they develop social anxiety because they think people are looking at them differently (due to their dark skin), or they spend a long time hiding what they perceive to be negative to others,” Ahmed says.


“In addition to the side effects, skin lightening also has unrealistic expectations attached to it. Sometimes people think they are going to look different, but most of the time those expectations are not met.”


Ahmed wants to see the end of stigmatisation that is based on the colour or tone of someone’s skin, and the old prejudices of associating darker-skinned people with lower socioeconomic class compared to lighter-skinned people. “I still don’t think we are as near as we need to be to this, especially when role models and celebrities often have skin tones that are much lighter than their natural tone, and everyone knows they lighten it, perpetuating the notion that darker skin is undesirable,” she says.


Ahmed says acceptance is a good starting point for managing the mental health impacts of skin lightening and to curb the practice itself. “There is no such thing as a normal skin tone or type because, whatever you are, it is normal and that is your genetic fingerprint and how you are designed by nature,” she says.


With UK film and other mass media starting to respond to the changing cultural climate, and ‘Fair and Lovely’ switching name to ‘Glow and Lovely’ in 2020, there are signs that society is starting to turn a corner.


Moving forward, Ahmed hopes that the next generation of South Asian diaspora in the UK—Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012—will further shift the paradigm as people who are literally comfortable in their own skin.


In a nod to Gen Z’s perceived assertiveness about individuality and social responsibility, she says, “They are the ones who will take this forward because they are in a good position to voice their concerns and are not deterred from speaking up about their feelings.”


*Surname withheld at interviewee’s request

 



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