So, Hindustan Unilever Limited just dropped the word “Fair” from its product’s name but chose to not discontinue the product which spurted nothing but racism in this country for decades. We must use this moment to recognize that the word “fair” itself is a misnomer. The word’s used to describe the shades of human skin, like any other shade, for the purpose of makeup or identification are pale, light, medium and dark.
What does the word “fair” even mean with reference to one’s skin colour? The word isn’t an adjective but attributes desirability to a particular shade which is the “light skin tone”. We must actively quit using that word to describe light-toned skin and instead use the word “light”.
Remember saying “pass me the skin colour“, referring to that light orange crayon while drawing humans as kids? There were dark-skinned babies who wondered how they could draw themselves because that “skin colour” didn’t quite match theirs. There were kids who came back home asking their parents when they would “turn into skin colour”. Language matters. The unlearning and relearning are constant.
I am also using this moment to reflect on my own attitude towards racist products. Growing up, I was never conscious of my skin colour and never really dwelled upon it. I was lucky enough to have my ignorant naivety not let me take notice of an absolutely racist Indian society that I was a part of, that constantly taunts young girls and women about their skin tone. My “wheatish skin”, as they call it, let me escape the prejudice to a large extent without my even realizing it.
Also, my years of struggle with my rapidly fluctuating body weight and PCOS left very little curiosity in me to experiment with makeup or wear a pretty face. I was prudish with makeup and learned how to wear some or use an eyeliner only at the age of 24. Having PCOS also meant dealing with sensitive/highly irritable skin and having to constantly fight hardcore cystic acne plus indefinite scarring.
While buying toiletries or searching for a face wash that could help with my situation, I constantly kept away from products that quoted “skin-whitening, lightening, brightening” in their product description. I thought it was a ridiculous claim and wondered why I would even want to look a different colour than what I was. Sans my Instagram filters and a front camera that pales out my photos, my skin is a medium brown. (I use these filters to hide my boring backgrounds, yet most of the time, I understand the intended effect of these filters and feel guilty over my playful gratification.)
And all of these musings were from my mid-twenties when I wasn’t even conscious about my outlook or my approach towards the deep-rooted issue of colourism in our society and the toxicity of “beauty standards” promoted by the cosmetic industry. All that I felt was an extreme level of cringe whenever there was a Fair And Lovely advertisement on the TV telling us that girls become confident and get employed when they have “fair skin”.
I remember becoming bitter thinking about what these ads that promote “light skin as the norm and the most desirable trait in both men and women” must have made my beautiful dark friends feel like all their lives. And yet, there was no active learning on my part to understand more about the issue of cosmetic industry racism, the lack of representation of the various skin types, or what it is that I could do to counter the guff.
And then Garnier happened. A few years ago, Garnier replied to a beauty vlogger who reached out for a collaboration, with these godforsaken words: “We don’t work with your skin types”, and was later forced to apologize. The woman had acne. The irony was that she actually wanted to test one of their products that claimed to clear up acne and scars. The whole poisonous concoction that capitalism and beauty industry truly is, dawned right upon me then. I instantaneously decided I was never going to buy Garnier products ever in my life again.
But it wasn’t just Garnier. It’s common knowledge that there is this entire chain of cosmetic industries that feed off on our insecurities, which indeed have been systematically induced by these very corporate houses with a plan to profit off them. But more significantly, even in terms of skincare, I discovered that all the major brands package nothing but costly amalgamations of harmful chemicals, which in the long run are prone to damage your skin sooner than later.
It’s been more than two years that I quit using any kind of packaged product on my face. I decided I wasn’t going to subject my already tormented skin to chemicals packaged into Gennie bottles by these sham hubs that behoof off our bodily issues, all the while tricking people with genuine skin problems into believing the practicality of their products by exclusively engaging with “light-skinned women with genetically healthy skins” to play their screen tropes.
I do not even use face washes. My skincare only includes a chemical-free (for what it claims) moisturizer and some essential oils which I actively chose to not be of a brand that promotes racist advertisements, is non-inclusive or is one of those major brands like Lakme, Revlon, Garnier, Nivea, Clean & Clear, Loreal Paris, Neutrogena—you name it.
These major brands use hoards of chemicals in their products while constantly promoting nothing but light skin. A little research told me that these widely available brands in India are the ones that have the maximum amount of sulfates, parabens and other detrimental preservatives in them. Post that disengagement, my skin has never felt better, and neither has my conscience.
More than a hundred years ago, in 1915, a group of men sitting at a round table in Gillette decided to promote hairless bodies as the new norm for women by calling their body hair “filthy and undesirable”, to increase their falling razor blade sales. They decided to prey on women by having them included in their target audience. An entire gender was reduced to following a painstaking norm that can no longer be severed from their anatomical understanding of themselves. Feminist learnings gave us this knowledge which now offers us a choice and loads of empowerment.
It’s time we used this reckoning to bring about consumer awareness and pull down corporations that feed on racist tropes targeted at both men and women, body types, hair types and a range of other sexist, colourist, non-inclusive, homophobic elements to further their profit ventures. The least we can do in the larger battle is to make a conscious choice to indulge or associate with brands and products that take an ethical and inclusive stand when it comes to addressing their consumer base or marketing their product. It’s time our consumeristic instincts evolved beyond cruelty-free.