The meteoric rise of Malaysian actress Wardina and singer Waheeda in the last few years was by no means an accident. For decades, women who wore the tudung (hijab) had longed for high-profile role models who shared their values and dress code. Representation is, of course, a good thing, but their popularity can be partly attributed to the public’s preference for fair skin.
The Malay skin colour can be best described as a spectrum of tones; from the dark brown (hitam manis) to ghostly pale (putih melepak) – all a result of a half-forgotten history of intermarriage between ethnic groups that co-exist in Malaysia and beyond. While there isn’t a social and economic divide based on colorism in the country; i.e. the rich and powerful aren’t necessarily pasty white or vice versa, there is a culture of implicit loathing of darker skin. The solution to this, however, is easy: whitening creams.
Wardina and Waheeda represent the wholesomeness that many young Malay women aspire to. But they are also sending out messages that pander to neo-colonial conventions of ‘white is beautiful’ and ‘black is ugly’. Malaysia is awash with lightening cream adverts that suggest this. The thing people say about human nature – that we all, in some way, prefer looks that are different from our own, does not even apply here. Whitening can be a compulsive behaviour, an obsession. Friends I know who are naturally light-skinned use creams to make themselves even lighter. Whiter than white.
Purveyors of products like ‘Fair and Lovely’ and ‘L’Oreal White Perfect’ (what a racist name) reinforce the ideology of white supremacy and the sexist practice of biomedicalisation of women’s bodies. Upholding these ideas means that women should suffer from serious health implications or simply from self-hatred in the name of whiteness. What are your thoughts about this?