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Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Who's The Fairest Of Us All?

By Stuti Sarkar

“What beautiful features you have! But poor thing, you’re dark,” said the Aunty next door as she handed out a tiny tube of Fair and Lovely. This tiny tube has been presented to girls since 1975 when it was first launched by Hindustan Unilever, claiming to be a ‘miracle worker’ and lightening skin ‘upto three shades’. This was followed by the advent of a string of fairness creams in the early 1990s such as Emami’s ‘Naturally Fair’, Cavinkare’s ‘Fairever’ and Godrej’s ‘Everglow’ to name a few.  As per the findings of the World Health Organization, the  skin-lightening or bleaching industry made up 61 per cent of India’s dermatological market in 2011.With a business of 3,000 crores in the year 2014, it’s safe to say that these brands have been successful in monetising the Indian society’s pervasive aversion to dark skin tones. These products thrive on years of subliminal conditioning in the minds of Indians that fair-skin is superior to dark-skin. It has been theorised that this mindset is a result of India’s history of being conquered and colonised by light skin oppressors such as the Mughals, the Persians and of course the British. The caste system of India is primarily based on the colour of one’s skin, with the brahmins or upper caste being fair and the shudras or the lower caste being dark. The prevalence of this system in today’s supposedly modern times is proof enough that there is still a hangover of the British Raj. 


The Fairness cream industry has been relentlessly racist in the marketing of their products. Most of the advertisements broadcasted to the masses discriminate between the lifestyle of fair versus dark skinned people. These ads portray people with “dusky” skin to lead lives subpar to people of lighter skin tones. Equating the darkness of the skin to low self esteem, decreased chances of landing jobs, and reduced prospects of finding love, these ads propagate internalised racism. Internalised racism can be best explained as the conscious or subconscious adoption of a dominant society’s racist and stereotypical outlook towards one’s ethnic group. This leads to self hatred, criticism and dissociation from one’s ethnic group as people buy into the notion that people of colour are inferior to whites. 


There exists an age old link between the cosmetics and the Bollywood industry. Having A-list stars endorse skin-whitening and bleaching creams ensures that it appeals to the minds of naive people who will then believe that light skin equals a successful life. Be it Deepika Padukone in the Neutrogena Fine Fairness ad, Priyanka Chopra for Ponds White Beauty, Shah Rukh Khan for Fair and Handsome, or Sonam Kapoor for L’Oreal Pearl Perfect, the list just does not seem to end. What’s worse is that they seem to do this even after knowing the unfairness of situations wherein light skinned actors enjoy more screen time as compared to their dark skinned counterparts. Infact, multiple actors have gone on record to say that when playing upper caste educated characters in movies, the makeup artists on set focus on making their skin appear brighter. Photoshoot campaigns for these fairness cream ads also see the regular photoshopping to alter the actor’s skin tone. This racism translates into everyday life quite effectively. According to a survey conducted by Vaseline Healthy White, “8 out of 10 women in India believe that fair skin gives them an additional advantage in the society.” 


How often we see matrimonial ads with the words “fair, beautiful, homely” mentioned in hopes of fair progeny. The traditional fairy tales we read at bedtime to our kids all feature characters with “fair skin and rosy cheeks.” A recent photo of the Femina Miss India finalists in a well-known newspaper received backlash as people noticed how all contestants were practically of the same skin tone, with very little diversity in their features. One would think it was multiple pictures of a single woman wearing different outfits. So much for India being a diverse country. Thus, taking all this into consideration, it is no surprise that the whitening cream market in India is expanding at a rapid rate of nearly 18% a year and is anticipated to achieve market revenues of more than Rs. 5,000 crore by year 2023, according to the India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview in 2018.


Some argue that the implication that the fairness cream industry is responsible for the dissatisfaction of people with their natural skin colour is unjust. In their view, fairness creams are only commercial products, and must be looked at as a solution to a demand. Afterall, if a lipstick can be used to enhance one’s lip colour, a skin whitening cream can be used to enhance one’s skin colour, right? While it is true that racist attitudes existed even prior to the launch of these fairness creams, it is a question of whether we really want to capitalise on this prejudice against dark skin. Looking at some of the marketing campaigns these days, it’s a no brainer that these creams do indeed fuel internalised racism, even if they weren’t responsible for its  origin. In a country like India, with a history of racism, the ethics behind marketing campaigns and advertisements of these fairness creams are indeed questionable. Even after the restrictions on advertising by the Advertising Standards Council of India, the cosmetic Industry has, and will continue to exploit the ‘dark is ugly’ and ‘fair is lovely’ notion of the society. 


Skin lightening serums and creams, with their racist advertisements, cause people to be ashamed of their ethnic background and originality. They essentially propagate the notion that there is a need to change one’s colour for a more wholesome and happy life. These creams and their advertisements make people conscious of their looks in ways undesirable. While there have been campaigns such as “Dark is beautiful” and “Stay Unfair,” with several actors as well as common men taking a stand against these ridiculous products, India’s mentality and stigma will require time to change and heal.


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