Sun, 06 Aug 2000

Stigma of dark complexion fading

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): In the much acclaimed English film Bhaji on the Beach, an elderly character of Asian origin blames the breakup of her son's marriage to the very dark complexion of her daughter-in-law. She moans something like, "I knew that girl was no good when I saw how dark she was!" It does not even occur to the elderly lady to ponder that maybe her son had hurt his wife so much that she had little choice but to leave him or that the color of his skin was not much lighter than his wife's!

A desire for white skin, especially in women, has been the weakness of most Asian societies since the dawn of civilization. In Japan a white complexion is considered more feminine, in Indonesia it is associated with the exclusive class of aristocrats. It has not helped that most parts of Asia were once under the colonial rule of fair skinned Europeans who invariably made the dark skinned natives feel like dirt.

Royalty succeeded in guarding its complexion from ruin only because it could stay indoors and by resting and eating well and for centuries dark skin was associated with boorish members of the working class who are looked down on as being crude and repulsive.

In legends throughout the region, night is dark and to be feared, a time when unseen creatures take over the world while human beings rest their eyes in fear and dread. The evil forces are always dark and to be defeated by brave warriors with complexions as light as day. In Indonesia the color white enjoys an image of being clean, chaste, neutral and light.

Despite the catchy slogan, Black is Beautiful, coined in the 1970s to boost the morale of black American women and the desire of thousands of European women to tan themselves chocolate brown, cosmetic shelves at drug stores and super markets all over Asia are lined with various brands of creams and lotions that promise to lighten the skin of dark women.

Both royalty and the colonialists have long departed from the region and some of the unfair legends are also fading, but the stigma of being dark skinned continues to live within Asian societies. Or does it?

According to a recent study by Professor Miho Saito, a psychologist at Waseda University, Japanese women in Indonesia do not desire milk white complexions like Europeans any more. What they seek is a healthy looking skin with a natural glow. Based on her study women here have used positive words like happy, soft and healthy for a wheatish complexion.

Spotted at the launch of an ultra violet natural lightening cream by Oil of Olay that targets women between the ages of 15 years and 29 years, Ecky, 22, swears that she is content with her coffee colored complexion. But she has been using the lightening lotion to clear blemishes and above all to protect her skin from the sun and pollution. She does not desire a white complexion for herself.

The other change in the attitude of the modern Asian woman is that she wants to look and feel good for herself for a change and unlike her more insecure elders she dresses up not just to please men or to hook a husband. Educated working women are aware that long hours under the harsh sun and pollution can tan and damage the skin.

"What lightening lotions do is to reverse the process of tanning. It is that damage control that makes the face look younger, cleaner and not necessarily whiter," explained Dr. Lily Soepardiman, dermatologist, School of Medicine of University of Indonesia and consultant to Procter and Gamble, the cosmetic company that markets more than 300 products to millions of consumers in over 140 countries.

What Dr. Lily wants women to beware of is the mercury content in skin lightening creams. The titanium dioxide based creams are good for the skin as they reflect sunlight, helping to prevent ultra violet rays from penetrating into the skin.

It was never true that medium to dark skinned people are immune to the strains of the sun. In fact some darker skins are found to be even more sensitive than their lighter counterparts. That dark skin can get burned and bullied as easily by the rays of the sun is fast becoming common knowledge. The break through concept is not to lighten the skin but to protect it from getting unnecessarily tanned.

As for the rich and the mighty who live in palaces, they are just an illusion. They seem to look better than the majority of people working for a living only because they are able to protect themselves from the burning sun and not because they were born superior.