The police murder of an African-American named George Floyd in the United States led to a nationwide reckoning in terms of checking systemic racism. Apart from moves to defund the police to strip them off excess power, several sections started reflecting upon their privileges and how they propagated racism. For example, in Hollywood, several celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey apologised for wearing blackface, which was historically used by Caucasians to make fun of black people.
Several major brands such as B&G Foods, Mars, and PepsiCo promised to rework on their racist logos and caricatures which perpetuated stereotyping of black people. This became a global movement where several brands chose to rework and rebrand their beauty products that suggested (in any way) that fair skin is better than dark.
Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it would discontinue two lines of skin-lightening products popular in Asia amidst conversations on racial inequality.
In a big OMG moment, Hindustan Unilever (HUL, the Indian unit of Unilever), announced that it would drop the word “fair” from its “Fair & Lovely” range of products to promote inclusion and beauty diversity. ‘Fair and Lovely’ and similar products were widely criticised for their negative stereotypes and for playing a role in cultural racism. The fairness cream industry is regarded as a billion-dollar industry in Asia and the Middle East.
I was recently watching a video by VICE which covered the Bollywood’s behind-the-scenes. A casting director said that he is asked to find actors and actresses who are fair-skinned. They might probably disregard a dark-skinned actor no matter the abilities. The casting director also described the actress who came to audition as “beautiful” probably due to her complexion.
The film stars also undergo several surgeries or processes (like avoiding sunlight) to improve their skin’s complexion further. It makes sense. Look at the major production houses in India as well as the big-budget films. It is literally impossible to find someone who is dark.
I remember reading an article that made fun of the beauty contests (Miss India) and Bollywood for having same-ish looking women, same oval-shaped face, thinness, and extremely fair. In Tamil cinema, the majority of the heroines are fair-skinned are brought in from Telangana, Kerala, and North.
Dark-skinned people have been shunned, made fun of, and stereotyped. In films, villains are shown as extra dark as it is shown in ‘Baahubali‘ and ‘Odiyan.’ Even if they want to portray a dark-skinned person, they cast a fair-skinned actor or actress wearing brownface instead of giving that opportunity to a dark-skinned actor or actress.
When it was called out, it led to an unfortunate situation where actresses described it as “a state of women being against each other”, in their 2019 roundtable discussion. Ironically, two of them, Yami Gautam and Alia Bhatt, endorse fairness products. In real life, matrimonial ads mostly demand fair people (especially brides).
Even in fairness cream ads, different skin tones are shown where the dark person looks unhappy while fairer version looks happy.
So what is beauty? Does beauty mean fairness? Where did India’s obsession with fairness begin?
Hypodermic needle model or magic bullet theory states that the media’s message is like a bullet fired from the “media gun” into the viewer’s “head”. This means that whatever idea is being fed will be received wholly by the masses. So when ideas like extreme thinness and fairness are associated with beauty and perfection, the masses will receive it likewise. Films and advertisements have been projecting this idea for over a century; thus it formed the general perception.
Added to that, British colonial rule changed a lot of perspectives of people. Since the white people who came in had all the power to rule, there came a natural assumption about fairness and its connection to power. During the Victorian era, the British themselves exhibited certain standards of beauty that were associated with whiteness.
India is a brown nation with different states having different cultures, traditions, etc. Along with cultures came ideologies as well as standards. Somewhere along the line, this influence of whiteness on beauty standards was propagated.
Years later, we read news about how, in India, Caucasian tourists are respected well while the black tourists face discrimination and bullying. Dark-skinned people are called “kaalu” in a derogatory tone. Even school textbooks have described fair girls are beautiful and dark girls as ugly.
Nobody is born a racist. Bigotry and prejudice are taught by people and circumstances they create.
Now, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement led to a form of reckoning that people, businesses, and celebrities had to rethink their views of capitalising racism which suggested that one skin tone is better than the other. That being said, it is a pity that someone had to die to make people open their eyes and see the reality faced by black and brown-skinned people.
Now that major brands are revamping, will celebrities take stand against stereotypical beauty standards?
Actors Sushant Singh Rajput, Taapsee Pannu, Sai Pallavi, etc., had refused to endorse fairness cream brands due to the racist narrative associated with it. Priyanka Chopra has been called out multiple times regarding her association with fairness products, and in an interview with Barkha Dutt, she expressed her regret.
Can we expect the same from Shah Rukh Khan, Yami Gautam, Tamannaah Bhatia, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, Disha Patani, John Abraham, etc. who were all faces of fairness endorsements?
To celebrate inclusion, every skin tone has to be accepted and celebrated likewise.
The stereotypes that are fed by class, background, qualification, etc., should be called out and boycotted. I hope that this period of reckoning won’t end in vain.