A young girl who worked at our house for a few years, before getting married, used to have only one item in her small purse for self-care. A tube of ‘Fair and Lovely’. She used it regularly and carried it with herself all the time. That one tube was the only evidence of aspiration in her persona. I tried to dissuade her, but the stubborn look in her eye made me always back down.
When I read recently that Unilever, the company that makes the product had decided to rename it and drop the ‘Fair’ in favor of ‘Glow’, I thought about her after all these years. The aspiration for being fair in a country like ours, where skin color is primarily all shades of dark and brown, is deep rooted and manifested in many areas of life.From putting new-borns in color boxes of ‘saaf rang nahin hai’ (is not fair), or to marriages being decided on ‘rang gira hai’ (is dark)– the bias against dark skin is a part of life.
The fairness industry did not create the preference for fair skins, it capitalized on a deep rooted desire that has for centuries equated fair skin with worth and beauty. In matrimony the demand is always for a ‘gori’ bride, advertisements tell young girl that a fair skin will give them a head start in life – both professionally and personally. This is one prejudice that has closed the gender divide too, with lots of products that claim to help men become ‘fair and handsome’ or of ‘lighter skin’ tone in order to succeed! Well known Bollywood celebrities have routinely sold the ‘fair’ dream to countless young people, the underlying message being life would be more successful if you are ‘fair’. The fairness cream market in India is estimated to be nearly Rs5000 crores! Surveys say that nearly 735 million use fairness creams in India, with majority being women and girls.
The battle between the fairness industry and its opponents has been raging for quite some time. For many years, activists and prominent people have been pursuing ideas like the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign (2009) and the hashtag #unfairandlovely (2015) to bring into focus the problem of ‘colorism’ – a bias against dark skin – and counter the idea that only fair is beautiful and emphasize on beauty beyond skin color.
After a piecemeal ban on some offensive fairness advertisements by the Advertising Standards Council of India in 2014, the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020, has been finalized by the Ministry of Health, which apart from others also proposes a ban on advertisements of products that promote fairness creams. Offenders are liable for 5 years in prison and fine.
A prominent Indian matrimonial website recently dropped its skin filter categorizing prospective matches on skin color. Unilever’s change of name was preceded by another consumer giant Johnson & Johnson dropping its range of products that are sold as ‘dark spot reducers’. These shifts are primarily due to the impact of the “Black Lives Matter’ campaign. The campaign has brought focus on brands that use imagery that has racial undertones to sell products. This has seen the fairness industry come under severe pressure forcing them to make changes.
The multi-billion dollar fairness industry picked on a social prejudice and packaged it in an economic manner so that millions believed that by spending merely Rs 5/- on a sachet of cream they could be rid of their undesirable dark skin. I wonder now, will the name change challenge this belief? Or will people continue to chase the fair skin mirage?
Do these cosmetic changes to imagery and names really change things on the ground? Like many other deep rooted prejudices the preference for fair skin will take a long time to disappear. It will need a change of societal mind set. Much like son preference, it will need to begin from when women are pregnant. When they will not be routinely told that drinking saffron-laced milk and eating oranges, fennel seeds and coconut will make the child fair. When children and young will not routinely face bias due to their complexion. When marriages will not be made or unmade on the ground of a ‘gori’ girl. Then, we can begin to have hope.
Till we get there, these changes are important. The images and values that are touted and promoted on the media, have a great role in shaping ideas and preferences. Once the underlying messaging that the fairness industry has promoted – that dark is undesirable – disappears, we would probably move forward to accepting that neither dark nor fair is beautiful. Beauty is beautiful.
Published in Hindi in Dainik Bhaskar on 21-7-2020