As a young girl growing up in the 90s and early 2000s in India, I was constantly fed this notion that being fair was a synonym for victory and achievement. Don’t drink chai, you’ll become dark. Don’t sit in the sun too long, you’ll lose your milky complexion. You’re pretty now too but when you were a kid you were so fair, what a complexion you had. Make sure to rub the besan paste on your skin, you’ve been out playing in the sun too much.
Growing up in a country obsessed with fairness makes the perfect environment for self-loathing and discrimination. And the fairness industry thrives on insecurities. It targets the already marginalised sections of society and makes them more vulnerable to prejudice, slowly but surely chipping away at their self-worth.
I was bombarded with hoardings and advertisements for skin lightening products on television screens and billboards with girls using products to not only get lighter skin but also magically become more confident and fulfil all the dreams thanks to it. Do you understand the subliminal messaging that has gone behind this? I heard my sister being appalled when her future in-laws suggested that their son was fair while she was dusky and so it wasn’t a match on an equal footing.
Now of course, as we progress into the future most of these skin lightening products don’t come with the specific words ‘skin’ and ‘lightening’, they’re morphed behind terms like bleaching, whitening, brightening.
Fairness cream ads are getting out hand! 😂 pic.twitter.com/AxDk4QKuCu— Paras पारस ਰਿਸ਼ੀ (@parasrishi) August 28, 2019
For many of these companies, it meant money and more money. It was a double-edged sword where they told young minds that the dusky, brownish colour was ‘dirty’ and gave a solution to ‘fix the problem’. In families where a cousin was duskier than the others, he or she was ‘lovingly’ more often than not called Kallu or Kala and constantly treated as lesser than. Today, the skin-lightening industry stands at a whopping Rs. 4000 crore market.
However, finally, in 2020 we’re witnessing a turnaround prompted by the American and then global #BlackLivesMatter movement which brought the beauty industry under long-awaited criticism for perpetuating systemic bias and oppression.
Hindustan Unilever with its Rs. 2000-crore, best selling product Fair & Lovely has now announced that they will be dropping the word ‘fair’ from their product, saying, “We recognise that the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right.” They’re now claiming that the product will be called ‘Glow & Lovely’ and have said that the company will be dedicating itself to a “more inclusive vision of beauty”.
This announcement came after Johnson & Johnson, the company behind Neutrogena and Clean & Clear, recently declared that it would discontinue the production of skin-lightening products.
However, while many people are celebrating this change, the fact remains that skin-lightening products still exist in the market. None of the companies that have profited from whitening creams for decades have shown any desire to reexamine their role in perpetuating colourism, casteism or any other kind of social hierarchy.
We all remember those advertisements where the woman gets rejected for a job, looks at her face in the mirror, gets dejected, uses a fairness product and suddenly the world is a brighter and accepting place where she succeeds, gets her dream job and aces life. In one ad I even remember that a young working professional proves her worth to her father who wanted a son by transforming herself into a fair-skinned woman.
However, we cannot blame one product or one industry for this. The problem is so much deeper than that. From cinema to television and advertising this 'upper-caste' prototype of beauty has gone unchecked for far too long. Celebrities like Priyanka Chopra have come under a lot of flack for supporting BLM protestors while promoting several skin brightening products.
List of Indian actors who are speaking on BLM and their fairness cream ads, a thread : pic.twitter.com/yUeRNLch6U— anti pigeon (@aluminiummaiden) May 31, 2020
She is not alone in having modelled for these brands, other stars include Disha Patani, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and several others, oh and let us not forget the men advertising fairness products that work on men’s skin-tone as well- Shahrukh Khan, John Abraham and Shahid Kapoor to name a few.
Actor and activist, Nandita Das, who has been vocal about colourism in the industry, welcomes the abandoning of ‘Fair’ in Fair & Lovely but says, “The fact it took so long for even a global company to stop spending crores on advertising on the absurd message of fair IS lovely should tell us how much longer it will take it to defeat the notion. Today is not the day to complain about that. Better late than never for HUL. While brands can only use the existing prejudice to their advantage, changing the narrative will spark the much-needed conversation around the issue of colourism.”
The hypocrisy in our society has been there since time immemorial, it’s only now coming into light. Calling out Bollywood celebrities, the advertising industry and the beauty industry was just the first step. We’ve to do the much needed and tougher work of looking into ourselves for residual racist and colourism tendencies and address the colonial hangover we seem to have not woken up from.
Cause fair or not, we sure as hell are lovely!
Featured Image: Pexels