India’s obsession with fair skin is evident in how casual colourism permeates almost every element of our cultural consciousness. Colour prejudice is prevalent and extensively practised openly all across the country. In the Indian society, what determines a person’s worth over any other factor is their skin colour, and people are required to make sure that every part of their body is white enough so that they can become desirable for a partner, a job or even social acceptance.
The notion even penetrates the mind of kids as small as 5-6 years old when they are praised by their families for being the fairer one, and this idea of prejudice only keeps developing as they grow. Adding to this, media campaigns and celebrity endorsements make life difficult for dark-skinned individuals to live in this country.
There is a multibillion-dollar skin lightening enterprise that confines and reduces women and individuals from other marginalised sections to the colour of their skin. This fairness cream market exploits them by constructing an extensively unfair and not-so-lovely status for them in India.
In addition to establishing beauty standards, the obsession with fairness and the resultant oppression that people experience due to this also intersects with caste, class, social status and gender. The relation between caste and skin tone, according to an anthropological view, is sceptical, as there exists no established correlation between the two.
But, there prevails this popular social perception of an association between the two in India. This notion of equating lighter skin with higher caste provides a greater status to a certain privileged section of the society, while degrading another section as disadvantaged due to their darker skin tone.
During the colonial era in India, there was institutionalisation of the idea of colourism, and people began associating lighter skin tone with greater social authority as light-skinned Indians were always favoured for jobs over dark-skinned Indians by the Britishers. Colourism is one of the remnants of the British tactics that were used to dominate Indians, and even after decades of freedom from the British, colourism remains systemically deep-rooted in our society.
Thus, the caste system, along with a prolonged history of colonialism, paved the way for this system of institutionalised segregation called colourism. In countries such as India, with concerns of career and relationships depending on skin complexion, people invest in skin-lightening creams and lotions in desire for a promising life.
Lakhs of people around the world have joined the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement after the murder of George Floyd to show their solidarity with the activists protesting against police brutality and institutionalised racism in the U S. #BlackLivesMatter had been trending on social media platforms since then, with support not only from people from the U.S. but from all over the world. Bollywood celebrities including Priyanka Chopra, Sonam Kapoor, Disha Patani, Deepika Padukone and many others were part of it.
They were quick to share their statements in support for the anti-racist movement in the U.S. through their social media handles, but this gesture is evidently hypocritical and only an act of performative wokeness. These celebrities, who have a great influence on the mindsets of lakhs of Indians, have not spoken a single word against the atrocities happening in our country towards minorities including Muslims, Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis, and by doing so, they are aiding in normalising hate politics in the country.
Moreover, they have been part of ridiculous advertisements that equate fairer skin tone with beauty, charm, confidence, accomplishment in life. These skin-lightening creams are portrayed as tools of self-transformation for a better life and, along with facilitating racism, these creams look down upon the population with a darker complexion. They need to introspect their endorsement of fairness creams and lotions in a country that is predominantly brown-skin.
The most notorious of these skin lightening creams is Unilever’s ‘Fair &Lovely’, which occupies almost 80% of the skin-lightening cream market in India. Its advertisements have played an active role in shaping colourism in India, emphasising on the idea that women need to depend on their beauty and perfect skin to succeed in the capitalist world.
These ads have an active role in enabling normalisation of colourism in society, and with its different celebrity endorsements, the cream is seen to be an ‘essential’ in the beauty routine of South Asian women. A lighter skin tone becomes social capital that defines prosperity in the life of Indian women.
Unilever has now rebranded ‘Fair & Lovely’ as ‘Glow & Lovely’, claiming that they feel it is not right to endorse a ‘singular idea of beauty’, and decided to drop words like ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ from its brand titles. Unilever is taking advantage of the current anti-racist movement in the world. Renaming the cream brand is nothing but an advertising trick.
Dropping the word ‘fair’ from the name of skin-lightening creams and replacing it with ‘glow’ will not contribute much to the campaign against colourism. The creams are made with toxic ingredients and will remain the same — you can buy the same cream but with a different name.
It is only a deliberate marketing strategy so that the current anti-racist movement does not affect their business. People will anyway know that ‘Fair & Lovely’ cream exists as ‘Glow & Lovely’, and Unilever can proceed with selling skin-lightening fairness products, a giant in the skin-lightening cream industry.
Unilever must refrain from taking advantage of the BLM movement for their profit. Changing the name is nothing but a publicity stunt and will not alter the mentality of people and the harm done to society. All these years, Unilever profited from the lie that fair is lovely and dark is ugly. They should ban the product completely and stop facilitating the toxic beauty standards our culture has adapted.