“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King Jr., renowned African American minister, activist, spokesperson, and leader in the civil rights movement
The Skincare Industry in India (as well as other countries of Asia and Middle-East) is majorly focused on promoting its products through advertisements centered around the obsession with fair skin. Such commercials give out a message that bright skin will provide better jobs, success in hobbies, attention from men, and many other things to women — basically, it will make their lives awesome.
All of us have come across many such abysmal and ‘impossible to believe’ commercials. We had the very famous Fair and Lovely advertisement, where a talented dancer was not included in the dance-act just because she had a dark skin-tone. Of course, she used the cream for 30 days, became fairer, and was able to attract the attention of the audience in the end.
Then, we had another commercial of a cream called 9X, that went to the extent of turning a brown-skinned woman to look caucasian! During this entire process, even the color of her hair changed from black to brown. The list of such videos is very long indeed. On one hand, it might seem funny to watch them, but actually, propagating this type of thinking is wrong and immoral as it emphasizes that beauty is always linked to fairness. We all know that it is not the case, and that dark is beautiful, but promoting this fairness obsession has been going on for ages!
With time, people have started raising their voices strongly against this issue. It was greatly fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement that started in the USA recently. The public has been calling out on various companies and brands that have promoted and advertised skin-care products (creams, etc.) by targeting the whitening and fairness aspects, preying on the insecurities of many women in the process.
Skin complexion or colorism is a significant problem in Indian society since many, many years, so much so that a woman’s skin-tone has been constantly used as a parameter to evaluate her self-worth. Girls are taught not to drink too much tea, not to play in the sun, and wear full clothes to avoid tanning. Not only this, but they are also pestered by their relatives to continuously try several home remedies so that they can look fairer.
The main objective, in the earlier times, was to get a good groom — how will you get a good husband if you are not beautiful and fair? After all, it was (and to some extent, still is) mentioned in the numerous matrimonial ads that people want a ‘fair and beautiful’ bride as their wife or daughter-in-law.
This issue still exists in the present-day world, but now, the focus has shifted more towards ‘looking’ good. We are overloaded with the content on online as well as offline platforms about how to get glowing skin in XX minutes, XX ways to get lighter skin, XX secrets and products to obtain a fair skin, and this list is pretty long! We are following these tips and tricks and recommending them to others in the name of taking care of our skin. The real question is — is this really the case, or are we, as a society, just obsessed with fair skin in each and every sphere of our personal as well as professional lives?
Popular author, actress, model and television host, Padma Lakshmi, recently shared her views on Instagram about how the skin-color bias is a persistent social force in India as well as many South-Asian nations. She elaborated that it made her feel insecure growing up.
Many other people took to their social media accounts to express several similar experiences that they had and their views on the same — how they have been rejected for marriage, how being continuously commented on their dark complexion made them lose their confidence, how others made fun of them at school, college and work, how being compared to their lighter-toned siblings pushed them towards depression, and so on. There is a dire need to deconstruct this harmful centuries-old prejudice that still continues to hamper the self-esteem of millions of girls and women.
There are various questions that are worth pondering about — why the commercials about creams, soaps and other such products associate fairness with personal and professional success? For many professions, white skin is an implicit criterion — why? What about movies, since there have been and still continue to be several cases linked, directly or indirectly, with this issue? Why are there several skin color filters (apps) available to ‘fairly beautify’ our pictures and why do people use them? And so forth.
Amidst this backlash and global controversy, the maker of the brand Fair & Lovely, Hindustan Unilever Ltd., has decided to remove the word ‘Fair’ from its name as an active effort towards making their skincare portfolio more inclusive, diversifying the portrayal of beauty. They will also be renaming their ‘Fair & Lovely’ Foundation. Set up in 2003, its aim is to offer scholarships to women so that they can pursue their education.
Actress Richa Chadha lauded this decision and explained that it took her many years of unlearning to gain confidence and start loving her complexion. Bipasha Basu, another popular face in Bollywood, recounted her experience on Instagram about how dusky was always her first adjective, at her home amongst relatives as well as on the work front (film and modeling industry). In a brown skin-toned country, promoting the statement that only fair is beautiful is a stigma that needs to be seriously tackled soon.
Meanwhile, emphasizing that healthy skin is beautiful skin, the brand Johnson & Johnson also declared that it would stop the sale of skin-whitening creams (Clean & Clear Fairness and Neutrogena Fine Fairness line of products) in Asia and the Middle East. Similarly, L’Oréal will be dropping the words ‘white’, ‘light’ and ‘fairness’ from its Garnier product line in South Asia, which has been widely advertised to whiten skin tone.
Brownface has been adopted in a number of films, not just in Bollywood but Hollywood as well. It is the temporary darkening of the skin of actors, especially when they portray characters from disadvantaged and lower-caste backgrounds. According to the critics, Hindi cinema often prefers this approach as compared to actually hiring people with naturally dark skin complexions, hence, perpetuating inequality in this industry. This practice is as old as the filming of Mother India when Sunil Dutt’s skin-tone was darkened for his role and spans all the way to movies like Bala, Super 30, and Gully Boy being the most recent examples (where the main fair-skinned actors were brown-faced). Somehow, it is linked to the popularity and monetary profits of the movies.
Nandita Das, a renowned actress, director, activist, and spokeswoman of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ movement, said that the campaign exposed the extent of our country’s obsession with fairness. By changing its attitude towards this issue, Bollywood can bring about drastic positive changes in society, given its reach among billions of people.
The latest addition to this series of events involves Shaadi.com, an Indian matrimony site. Meghan Nagpal, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, visited the platform and was shocked to find a filter that categorized prospects based on their skin tones. After flagging the issue but getting no response from the website, she posted this issue on Facebook. This led Hetal Lakhani, who lives in Dallas, to open an online petition. It quickly garnered popularity and eventually led the company to remove that feature.
Such incidents point out that the mindset within the South Asian culture about fair skin being better is clearly spilling over into diverse avenues. This is certainly not good and needs to be effectively dealt with!
For centuries, Indian society has inflicted and experienced this discrimination over skin tones and complexions. From the 15th to 17th centuries, the Indian subcontinent has been greatly influenced by various settlers and traders, including the Portuguese, Dutch, and French. It was invaded by the Mughals in the 16th century, and colonized by the Britishers from the 17th century onwards until 1947. All these events gave rise to the bias for lighter skin tones.
Some historians say that it was greatly intensified by British colonialism which favored light-skinned Indians for government jobs. With the passage of time, colorism has been exacerbated by caste, religion, regional and geographical differences, and numerous other factors. Basically, fairer skin is considered synonymous not just with beauty, but also with superiority, power, and status.
Apart from these negative psychological effects, there are several adverse physical implications related to fairness promoting skincare products as well. Many of them contain hazardous chemicals leading to potential health risks. Prolonged exposure to such chemicals could cause skin cancer, permanent pigmentation, mercury poisoning, and liver and kidney malfunctions, to name a few diseases.
It is extremely crucial for cosmetic companies, the film industry, various apps, sites, and other related platforms to emphasize that ‘radiant’ and ‘beautiful’ skin does not mean that it has to be ‘fair and white’! At the same time, it is critical that society also understands this matter of grave concern and stops traumatizing the dark-skinned girls and women. For true structural shifts to take place, it has to be a multi-frontal effort, starting at the school and family levels, eventually progressing from communities towards the country and, ultimately, global spheres.
An example that I could think is of Maybelline, a popular multinational cosmetics and skincare company. It has launched a series of fit-me foundations and made-for-all lipsticks that offer a variety of options according to different skin tones. Its commercials strongly put forward the message that beauty comes in all colors and forms! So, although we have started to address some aspects of this situation, we still have a long way to go.
“Beauty, to me, is about being comfortable in your own skin.” – Gwyneth Paltrow, actress, singer, author, and businesswoman