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Is wanting lighter skin any sillier than wanting bigger boobs?

A reader from India says that damning western attitudes towards skin-lightening creams are hypocritical and ignore non-west beauty norms

Your article (Skin-lightening creams are dangerous – yet business is booming. Can the trade be stopped?, 23 April) seems to imply that people who want fairer skin are irrationally endangering themselves. However, I see this as a west-centric understanding that fails to empathise with the fact that fairer skin is a beauty norm in much of the non-west, much like being thin or slim is a beauty standard in the west. Conversely, traditional South Asian beauty standards value a “healthy” or “plump” physique for women, which is an indicator of belonging to a family that is reasonably well-off.

Yes, as an Indian woman, I do want fairer skin. And no, I would not use creams containing dangerous chemicals, because I respect myself too much for that. But I would use home remedies that my grandmothers and great-grandmothers have used for over a century – turmeric, chickpea flour, yoghurt, rose water – if they can help me feel better about myself and, yes, attract the attention of the opposite sex. Isn’t that a most human desire? What makes it OK to devalue non-western women’s quests for better self-esteem?

It’s true that companies like Unilever – the manufacturer of Fair and Lovely – have in the past used abominable advertising campaigns to encourage women and men to buy their products. These advertisements made me as a teenager feel awful about myself. But let’s make a distinction between unhealthy advertising and chemical-laden cosmetics, and age-old beauty secrets to cater to an age-old beauty standard. My question is, why do articles about fairness creams that originate in the west often assume the right to occupy the moral high ground, looking down their noses at people from the east and south who choose to use these products, while overlooking similar phenomena in the west that lead people to use unhealthy methods for weight loss, fuller cleavages, fewer wrinkles and disguised grey hairs? Is wanting to have fair skin any sillier than wanting bigger boobs or not wanting to age? Isn’t insecurity about how you look a pretty universal human frailty?

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