Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Guest Blogger Sharifa Khanam

British Bengali Identity: The White Elite and the Brown Other

In this post, Sharifa Khanam discuss the role skin colour plays amongst British Bengalis, how it is more than skin deep, tainted by its history and contemporary ideologies in relation to identity politics. Due to her heavy interest in Sociology she often questions the social narrative of individual agency that has shaped the importance of light skin in the everyday, and how this influences one’s understanding of their position in the Bengali community.  

Whether in the East or West, skin colour is an unavoidable topic that pretty much every South Asian person has a share in. Our obsession with ‘fair’ complexions stems from the indoctrination that fairness can generate and guarantee economic and social privileges, an idea which is created and further reinforced by the family, the collective community, marketization, as well as the media. Whilst the desire for a fair complexion is to a degree an individual choice, and one has the right to choose this option, contextualising where and how this phenomenon emerged, how it took shape and the impact it has overall in the way we navigate our society must be examined. This blog touches upon the existence of the white elite and the brown ‘other’ within the Bengali community, and what may have led to the emergence of these two groups, which impacts the everyday lives of young British Bengalis today.

Whilst the binary distinction of black and white is part of how the older generation of Bengalis view and talk about skin colour, within the younger generation of British Bengalis (30 years old and under) this distinction has shifted to that of white and brown – what I conceive as the white elite and brown other. The white elite, the minority that is promised to have it all enjoy a high social status in the community, the best potential suitors out there, the favoured ones in the family, the true beauty of the Bengali community. The brown other is the exact opposite of the white elite; the outcast, those that will and will always be lacking, no matter their economic and social might. Till this day these binary groups exist, so the foundational belief of what white and brown skin colour means for the individual still endures, but how they pursue the skin colour they idolise has evolved. In the past, the mechanisms by which light skin was pursued may have been limited to make up and creams, but this has now expanded to tablets, ampoules, instant whitening masks, injections etc.

Now due to this indoctrination many are conditioned to perceive fairness as the desired skin colour and being brown as inferior. It’s as though one is threatened with exile from the community even though the colour brown is more common amongst the Bengali community. This marvelling, hailed, stress-inducing topic is the epitome of the compelling life journey crafted by our colonial British legacy and further perfected by our predecessors. However, in a visually orientated society, marketization and the media have taken the torch from our predecessors and taken skin colour to new heights.

Consider the following images:

Young Bengalis residing in western countries often tend to idolise this fair with an Arabian glow tone, since even actors are criticised in the media for looking too pale/pasty (here ‘pasty’ means looking unhealthy). Therefore, a light tan on top of a fair skin becomes sought after.

This next picture is of Kajol, one of the few Bengali actresses in the Bollywood industry, who was also hailed by some as the Queen of Bollywood at one time. Whilst she is loved by many, her Asian skin tone was always a subject of discussion within the older Bengali generations. Often they would reinforce the idea, at times subtly, other times frankly, that if you look like Kajol on the left perhaps you ought to do something about it until you become just right to be part of the white elite. Thus avoiding stigmatisation of being the brown other.

Subsequently, the next three images demonstrate the role of the media and marketization in conditioning young Bengali girls to look like a particular ideal. The Bollywood industry has predominantly bypassed actresses that represent the majority of Asian women in physical appearance, and put forth only actresses that either already look Caucasian, or a westernised version of Asian women, or have been lightened to look Caucasian.

The impact of this is far more detrimental than one can often imagine. Firstly, we have young Bengali girls questioning and confused as to why now more than ever there are very few actresses that look like them. Secondly, more and more young girls are seeking out skin bleaching dermatologists and have been successful in becoming the (literally) white elite. The irony of this is that whilst Asian cinema, i.e. popular culture, acquires Caucasian-looking actresses, western media tends to favour and employ actresses/models that look Asian (as often described by the youths). 

In order to grasp the politics of skin colour and identity in the British Bengali community, understandings of its colonial legacy and independence from Pakistan are crucial, as much of the tension created around their presumed identity stems from this history. Particularly since those considered ‘fair’ often state that they are categorised as either being Pakistani or Indian. The lack of investigation of this area and its relation to the politics of beauty and skin colour has thrown, many of the youth into confusion as to why this community is so readily consuming these ‘aggressively marketed’ (The Times India, 2009) whitewashed images. All this further perpetuates the superiority of the white elite in the Asian community, and the casting out of the brown other.

Similarly, on the far right you have the Bengali community who have come up with multiple shades of colour to compensate for the brown other in the Bengali community, like light brown, slightly brown, and tanned. Likewise, before and after the Korean artist Psy, there’s the Kpop (Korean pop) industry, which appears to have its arms nicely wrapped around the globe. I find more and more British Bengali females idolising these Kpop idols, who look brown at times off screen but on screen look whiter (see image below). Just like in the Bengali community, whiteness by Kpop is glorified as it is associated with innocence and purity. Being brown can be associated with being provocative and often sexualised. It is one thing living in England and constantly being bombarded by white beauties and ideal femininity according to Western standards, but when the East starts adopting a very Western standardisation of beauty, it appears as though there is no escaping.

The current situation young Bengalis in the West find themselves in is that whilst their family residing in the East are at ease in opting for lightening creams and openly discussing them, here in England the condition is rather perplexing. Very few will openly express favouring skin lighteners, and others will resent it. Then there are those who feel obliged to express dislike towards this practice, whilst potentially, secretly using them. With endless lightening products available and the concept of tanning gaining popularity; the white elite can become tanned and the brown other can be white- creating an impression that both can dip in and out of each other’s identity. It would be interesting to examine how the younger generation will deal with being a darker shade of pale in relation to the politics of skin, hair, and eye colour. 

I would like to end this post by asking why has the white elite both within the Bengali community and more broadly has not lost any credibility over time. Just like money is paper, white is just another shade of colour after all, and yet as a Bengali woman, I still see the youth willingly and vehemently defend the value of whiteness, which leads me to believe that skin whitening as a practice and its pursuit will only continue to evolve and grow stronger.


Best 10 list (2016) Top 10 Bollywood actresses that went from dusk to fair. Available from:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nkSacV8uw

Claire. K-pop Amino (2015) Whitewashing. Available from: http://aminoapps.com/page/k-pop/9288905/whitewashing

iDiva (2013) Bollywood actresses with peaches ‘n’ cream complexion. Available from: http://www.idiva.com/photogallery-style-beauty/bollywood-actresses-with-peaches-n-cream-complexion/24464 (Accessed at: 2/7/16).

Skintrium (2015) Skin Lightening Soap: So Much More Than a Cleansing Bar. Available from: http://blog.skintrium.com/skin-lightening-soap-so-much-more-than-a-cleansing-bar/

The times of India (2009) The Indian obsession with ‘fair’ skin. Available from: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/beauty/The-Indian-obsession-with-fair-skin/articleshow/4950626.cms

Monday, 28 November 2016

Guest Blogger Hester Clarke

From ‘natural’ beauty to ‘beauty-as-effort’: Raced and classed narratives of skin lightening amongst British Pakistani women in Sheffield.

About the author:  Hester Clarke was awarded her PhD in Social Anthropology from The University of Manchester in August 2016, for her ethnography of beauty, beautification and the popularity of beauty work amongst British Muslim Pakistani women in Sheffield. Her current areas of interest include aesthetics, beautification, race and ethnicity, class, Islam, gender, social inequality and multi-culturalism in the UK context.

‘Do you think I’m dark?’ Haiza asked me, scrutinizing her reflection in a compact mirror she was holding up to the light, tilting her head this way and that to examine her appearance from different angles. She adjusted her hijab around her face, pouting a little as she did so. ‘Be honest with me Hester’, she said, stopping for a moment to fix me with a serious stare before turning back to examining each pore, line and contour.

We were watching over her mum’s empty salon, ready to book in any customers who might happen to pass by, and conversation had turned to Haiza’s friend, Yalina. Yalina is the same age as Haiza and the young women were studying alongside one another for their AS levels at a local college.

I had met Yalina a couple of times before, but had failed to remember her name and in my attempts to describe Yalina to Haiza, I had said that I thought she was ‘pretty’. Haiza, clearly taken aback by this comment, eyed me suspiciously before saying that perhaps Yalina could be pretty but that her skin was far too dark. In fact, she added in a pitying tone, Yalina has one of the darkest skin tones of all the girls (by which she meant her Pakistani and Bengali friends) at college.

 (Extract of ethnography taken from my field notes in February 2013)[1]

 Haiza’s concern over her complexion and critique of her friend’s darker skin tone illustrates the centrality of fair skin to conversations of beauty amongst the young British Pakistani women I came to know in Sheffield. When discussing their preference for pale skin, Pakistani women stated that, quite simply, pale skin ‘looks better’. ‘Fair skin is just nicer’ one woman shrugged, clearly confused at my continued questioning of such a banal and obvious fact. Given the importance of fair skin to beauty, it is hardly surprising that at home and salon, facial treatments which promise to ‘brighten’ and ‘lighten’ the skin are popular amongst my interlocutors. In this post I demonstrate how skin beautification in my field site is dependent on context and divided between; the everyday and celebratory occasions, ‘natural’ and ‘perfect’ make-up styles and perceptions of ‘English’ (White British) and ‘Asian’ (South Asian) taste.

 When attending college, university, work and casual engagements with friends, women’s skin beautification efforts are judged as successful or otherwise dependent upon whether they are thought to ‘match’ or ‘fit’ her un-treated, un-made-up skin. Whilst young women assured me that they themselves would not ‘go too far’ in the pursuit of beautiful skin, ‘the majority’ of Pakistani women go ‘too far’ in the pursuit of beauty. As a consequence, these ‘lower class’ women visibly damage their skin through the overuse of skin lightening products, insist on wearing shades of foundation viewed as comically lighter than their un-made up complexion, and indulge in additional, ‘tacky’, lightening practices such as the wearing of coloured contact lenses which alter their dark brown eyes to shades of grey, light brown or hazel. Whilst quick to chastise ‘lower class’ Pakistani women, whom my interlocutors imagined as the majority of Pakistani women, ‘upper class’, ‘English’ women are praised for their ‘subtle’, ‘natural’, ‘sophisticated’, and ‘tasteful’ appearance.

 However, during celebratory occasions, the same subtle and natural make-up styles of ‘upper class’, ‘English’ women are shunned and even scorned. During weddings, birthday parties, Eid-al-Fitur and increasingly university graduations, applying a little make-up at home is no longer sufficient. For such events specialist Asian Bridal make-up artists are tasked with ‘transforming’ women into ‘perfect’, ‘unrecognisable’, ‘doll like’ visions. These specialist artists, fellow British Pakistani women, charge up to £400 for each look they create and whilst their styles can be differentiated from one another by those in the know, all artists use the same shade of MAC concealer and foundation, a shade significantly lighter than any of the women’s make-up free skin. In addition to creating a ‘perfect’, ‘unreal’ looking skin, these particular Asian beauty experts are praised for ‘contouring’ skills which they use to sculpt slim noses, small chins, high cheek bones and large eyes, features my interlocutors most readily associate with Euro-American women, all be it in a highly idealized form.

In these instances, discussions of beauty are developed within a rhetoric of self-care, self-respect, and self-development, moral attributes Pakistani women thought lacking in English women. As one beautician Fazia explained, whereas English brides are happy to apply their own make-up and buy their dresses online at knocked down prices, no Asian bride or party guest would consider such actions. Through expressing disapproval of English brides, Pakistani women position themselves as morally superior to English women, even ‘Upper Class’, English women.

It might be tempting to conclude that English and Asian make-up styles are therefore not only distinct, but that Asian make-up styles are a means of resisting the dominance of Euro-American aesthetic taste, through praising artifice as a mode of self-respect and self-care. However, in addition to drawing on particular hegemonic beauty ideals which privilege whiteness, Asian Bridal Make-Up artistry as a commodity and form of employment is cited as an indicator of both individual and community ‘progression’. Young women are quick to point to the somber, bare-faced brides depicted in the photographs of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations in order to emphasize ‘how far’ the Pakistani community has already come. Today, my interlocutors note, British Pakistani women are earning degrees, running businesses, marrying whom they choose and planning their own weddings - ‘just like English women’.
I posited some binaries at the beginning of this post; the everyday versus celebratory occasions, ‘natural’ versus ‘perfect’, and ‘English’ (White British) versus ‘Asian’ (South Asian). Yet Euro-American aesthetic norms and perceptions of agency also appear dominant in these stories, demonstrating these binaries to be not as oppositional as they at first may seem.

[1] This work is developed from a wider ethnographic project on beauty and the popularity of beauty work amongst British Pakistani women in Sheffield, the data for which I gathered between July 2012 and September 2013.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Guest Blogger Paul Gander

Report from a Southwark Trading Standards officer

Paul Gander is Trading Standards Team Leader at London Borough of Southwark. Paul has been a trading standards officer in Southwark, South East London, for 27 years. He has developed specialist knowledge of enforcement issues around the supply of illegal skin lightening products since hydroquinone was banned in cosmetics in 2001. Paul recently featured on a BBC exposè of the illegal market in London and has worked with partner agencies such as the MHRA and London Trading Standards on enforcement campaigns.

Keeping Southwark’s high streets free of harmful products is a major part of my role as a member of Southwark Council’s Trading Standard’s team.   

Over the years, like many other London Boroughs, we’ve seen a worrying number of cases coming through involving irresponsible retailers selling skin lightening creams containing hydroquinone and corticosteroid based products, both banned for their serious health risks. 

Earlier this year we had three cases involving local retailers based in Peckham who despite numerous warnings and advice on product safety from officers, continued to sell harmful skin lightening products. 

Our inspections resulted in the seizure of thousands of products that were clearly labelled with all the banned substances we had been advising them about. Some were on the shelves and some were hidden in stock rooms. Most worryingly, the steroid based products should only be available on prescription for certain skin conditions. They are intended for short term use under medical supervision and should not be on sale to the general public. However due to their skin lightening properties they are ending up in unscrupulous cosmetic shops. 

The shop owners tell us people ‘ask for the stuff all the time’ - so they are reluctant to say no. They say that the customer will most likely buy other items too so they don’t want to lose that business to a rival.  
Of course we prosecuted these three traders and they ended up paying a total of £43,000 in fines and costs. The results made national news headlines and we told all our other cosmetics shops about the cases as a deterrent.  
Early indications are it did have an impact. We sent our mystery shopper out to six shops and just one was prepared to sell (and not one we had prosecuted). This is down from nine sales out of 17 tested last year. 

Interestingly, this time the stock was fetched from outside the premises, meaning the business is being extra careful not to get caught with any stock inside - but ultimately this will make them look even worse in court.  

We will now go to the courts and seek an authorisation to carry out surveillance as ideally we want to find out where they are keeping their stockpile. Trading Standards have a duty to enforce the law and are on the frontline of ensuring only safe cosmetics are sold - but our job would be a lot easier if the demand issue was tackled. 

Clearly there is a need for better campaigning and consumer awareness.  I would urge users to consider the very real and potent dangers that prolonged use of these illegal products pose and remind them the regulations are there for good reason.  

We need to see all corners of society, from community leaders to healthcare professionals, speaking out about the often life changing results of long term use and tackling the difficult question of why some people will go to such dangerous lengths to change their skin colour.  

In the meantime, as a council we will do our best to make sure local retailers and online sellers are not putting their customers at risk.  

Southwark has been one of the most proactive enforcement authorities in the UK since hydroquinone was banned in 2001. To date, over 33 defendants have been fined anywhere between £5,000 and £72,000 each in cases we have instigated.


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Guest Blogger Meeta Rani Jha

Beauty as Structural Inequality: Femininity, Race and Skin-lightening

In this post, Dr. Meeta Rani Jha discusses the role beauty plays in creating structural and individual privilege, as well as contributing to discrimination and inequality. Her research focuses on the ways in which the categories of beauty and femininity intersect as key sites through which exclusion and structural inequality in life opportunities are reproduced across hierarchies of gender, race, colour, caste and class.

The power of beauty can be understood by examining its racialized and colonial history illuminating the values assigned to skin-colour. The attributes of white femininity were borrowed from Enlightenment philosophers, who understood beauty as a virtuous and divine attribute of truth and justice. Race was defined as a biological category, and racial differences were understood as reflecting the moral character and intelligence of the different racial groups.

The superiority of whiteness was consolidated by speaking of it as a moral and progressive force, and non-white people were labelled as less beautiful, even ugly, because of their biological differences and thus defined as less moral, less developed and less human. The white standard of beauty created a hierarchy of humanness with Europeans at the top of the racial hierarchy. We can see that beauty functions as a symbolic marker of cultural and moral superiority in a hierarchy of racialized difference, assigning goodness, innocence and godliness to white femininity. Thus, cultural attributes assigned to "idealized femininity" were established historically by European ideals of beauty.

Beauty is an integral aspect of femininity. From listening to women’s experiences we know that beauty practices create positive feelings, pleasures, playfulness, creativity, bonding and female community as well as negative feelings of self-hatred and shame. Girls from a very young age are socialised into beauty rituals and practices. Last week, my six year old niece asked me if she looks fat. After six long years in our world, she has already learned that femininity means self-surveillance and self-deprecation.

In all cultures, women learn to understand themselves by the internalisation of patriarchal knowledge, myths and stereotypes of femininity. Femininity is the social conditioning of women by imposed gender roles and identities and can be used as a way to socially control women’s desires and aspirations. Beauty practices are a way of performing femininity in order to fulfil heteronormative gender and sexual roles that prevail.

Skin-lightening is a beauty practice engaged in primarily by women of colour who perceive and understand their natural dark skin as a disadvantage and as a barrier to attaining idealised femininity. Thus, for many ethnic minority women the desire to lighten their skin is founded rationally to surpass racial and working-class penalties by accessing advantages of dominant beauty ideals and norms.

Beauty inequality is the condition that many women find themselves in when their natural appearance is perceived as undesirable and can create barriers to accessing life opportunities. Naomi Wolf (1991) theorized that the standards of beauty create “lookism” and beauty advantages based on a beauty and ugliness dichotomy, where ugliness confers a penalty, and beauty confers an advantage. Margaret Hunter (2011) further enhanced our understanding of beauty inequality by elaborating on the importance of skin-colour in her concept of ‘racial capital’. Hunter (2011:161) explains that the desire and the

“quest for white beauty is very important because white or light skin is a form of ‘racial capital’ gaining its status from existing racial hierarchies. Racial capital is a resource drawn from the body that can be related to skin tone, facial features, hair texture, body shape, etc.”

For many women, beauty is a site of deep emotional connection with popular cultural female icons and with other women in everyday media and cinema practice. However, mass-media and popular-culture images of female sexual attractiveness also reinforce skin-colour discrimination valorizing black and Asian women with lighter skin as sexually desirable and attractive. Women with darker skin are discriminated against in ethnic minority communities and lose out to their lighter-skinned sisters in both economic and marriage opportunities. So for example, Mark Hill’s (2002:80) research based in the U.S., revealed that black men also internalise and adopt dominant Eurocentric beauty standards and conflate femininity and sexual desirability with lighter skin, and dark skin with masculinity and male sexual virility, and discriminate against women with darker skin when dating.

Gendered colourism impacts black and ethnic minority women’s lived reality psychologically and economically. So for example, Radhika Parameswaran (2012) brings attention to a collective stigma directed at dark-skinned people, primarily impacting women in India to define colourism “as a systematic discrimination, historically practiced all over India and integral to the social, institutional and cultural fabric of Indian society.” She connects colourism to “skin color discrimination, in which dark-skinned people are seen as inferior, less beautiful, less competent, less intelligent, and less accomplished than light-skinned people” (quoted in Gupta, 2012).

My research investigates these forms of beauty inequalities. I am currently engaged in a pilot research project in collaboration with Dr. Veena Naregal from Institute of Economic Growth (India) that examines the linkages between colourism, class and caste inequalities, norms of feminine beauty and the production of contemporary exclusion pertaining to South Asian communities in contemporary Britain.

Dr. Meeta Rani Jha is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Winchester. 


Gupta, J. 2012.Understanding Colourism. August 3. http://jyotigupta.org/understanding-colorism-an-interview-with-dr-radhika-parameswaran/ Accessed June 28th, 2016.

Hill, M. E. 2002. Skin-Colour and the Perception of Attractiveness among African Americans. Does Gender Make a Difference? Social Psychology Quarterly, 65 (1):77-91.

Hunter, M.L. 2011. Buying Racial Capital: Skin Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalised World. Journal of Pan African Studies 4(4):142-64.

Wolf, N.1991 The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women 
New York: William Morrow and Company.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Dissemination Event

Dissemination event: Skin Lightening in England', Public Health England, Birmingham, 8.2.16

Somia Bibi, Pauline Long (BEN TV), and Steve Garner

Skin lightening products - London 2015
Somia Bibi presenting at the seminar. 

Take Our Survey


The survey is directed exclusively at people who use skin lightening products.

If you use skin lightening products, and want to take part in the survey, please click here to be taken to the questionnaire

Project Report Summary

Project Report Summary

This is the executive summary of the British Academy-funded survey on Skin Lightening in England, 2015-16 - carried out by Somia R Bibi and Steve Garner - for the Open University. It identifies patterns of consumption and sourcing among 114 women in England, and contains a brief overview of skin lightening as a global industry.

The project summary, as of 4 February, 2016, can be downloaded here

About the Skin Lightening Project

Although altering the tone of the skin using a variety of agents (i.e. skin lightening) is a centuries-old practice, the twenty-first century versions take place in a particular context: the boom in Asian economies and the uneven development of others; the power of marketing to take advantage of new technology. Ideas of lighter skin being more beautiful than darker skin have been deeply entrenched in the various colonial systems of domination for centuries, and those ideas have long outlasted the original social hierarchies in which they emerged. 

What this project has begin to do is understand skin lightening as a social practice rather than as a vast set of individual ones. In other words, to look at the patterns in how skin lightening products are thought about; consumed; used; marketed and regulated.  One finding from our initial survey is that many women deliberately use foundation that is shades lighter than their skin tone. While this would not normally be considered as a form of skin lightening, we think it should be.

The initial project was funded through the British Academy Small Grants scheme while the Principal Investigator (Professor Steve Garner) was at the Open University, and carried out in 2014-15. Somia R Bibi (PhD student, Warwick University) was the Research Assistant.

As various pieces of academic work are written and published, we will link them to this site.