The worldwide market for skin lighteners is expected to hit $20 billion in 2018.
Lighteners were developed in the U.S. during Reconstruction, by former slaves who wanted to get better jobs. Even as late as the mid-20th century, civil rights leaders like Walter White of the NAACP thought lighteners would end racial discrimination because black people could suddenly look white. Instead, the products moved into sub-Saharan Africa as well as East and South Asia and lightening became a way of life.
On a recent morning, I found Dilshad Jiwani at an Indian supermarket in Queens. She was buying a bottle of Fair and Lovely, the world’s #1 brand of skin lightener, according to the company, used by one in 10 women globally.
"People look at you differently if your skin color is different. Especially in America, because they’re fair and we have dark skin, so we’re treated badly. So I want to look fair too."
Jiwani said that in the past, people in the subway would get up and move away from her because she was darker. “It feels like insult!” she said. “They did that to me, and I felt bad. Now, since I’m white, they don’t do that.”
Listen to the full Micropolis segment on skin lightening across cultures, and how dark women like Lupita Nyong’o are tackling the problem of colorism.
Skintone-Pantone chart by Angelica Dass.