‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’ (Margaret Mead)
‘520,000,000,000’. I wrote the number slowly…and…deliberately across the whiteboard at the front of the class. The students looked on, intrigued. I asked, ‘Who can guess what this number means?’ The playful ones quickly put their hands up: ‘The population of the world?’ ‘The distance to the moon?’ I responded, ‘The number of Pesos (= US $8 billion) that people across the world spend on skin-whitening products in one year.’ The room was filled with looks and sounds of astonishment now. The students had considered this as a private personal-relational issue rather than a global economic one.
This was part of a 3-day workshop for student teachers and social workers – that is, key influencers for the future – in the Philippines. The first time I had arrived in the country, I had been naively taken aback when one of the people who greeted me apologised for their skin colour. My Filipina co-facilitator explained that this is a common phenomenon, where people evaluate themselves and are evaluated by others for how dark or light their skin is. The students went on to share heart-breaking personal testimonies of how far this has impacted their lives, prospects and sense of worth.
They were very surprised to hear how much money, by contrast, people in wealthy countries spend on products, treatments and trips abroad to darken their skin. I took some skin-tanning lotion with me from the UK to show them – and they could hardly believe their eyes. We went on to consider the deep cultural drivers and diverse vested interests that lay behind the skin-whitening industry. The lively debate that ensued generated novel campaign ideas to address stakeholders (e.g. manufacturers; marketers; retailers; consumers), and its damaging spiritual, psychosocial and financial effects.
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