India has been engaging in some introspection as it links racism in the US with colorism within its lands. Colorism flourishes in India; it can be found everywhere from the Fair & Lovely pouches sold in grocery stores, to the sentence “Bride wanted, white to wheatish color” that frequents the matrimonial ads of local newspapers, to the abundance of paper-white North-Indian actresses in South Indian movies (because God forbid a dark-skinned woman be cast as a heroine). Here’s a personal experience: A school I know of in India even used to choose only light-skinned girls from their classes for school photo ops.
As a 12 year old surrounded by this culture of “zyada gorappan“, I swallowed up every wiki-how on how to make myself whiter. My email inbox had a huge collection of DIY fairness mask instructions saved. Like millions of other Indian females, I worshiped Fair & Lovely. Everyday I scrubbed viciously at my skin, hoping it would turn whiter. I was far too concerned about how my body skin tone was uneven. I tried everything from turmeric to toothpaste (yes, toothpaste – 12 year old me would smile sheepishly and say toothpaste has bleach) to make myself whiter. Finally, my skin broke out one day and stayed that way for weeks. I realized I was an absolute idiot.
Fair = Lovely?
The company that has capitalized on colorism more than anyone else is Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely. The Indian fairness cream industry is worth $450m, and Fair & Lovely has a 50% share in this market. Talk about a monopoly!
Fair & Lovely has been the subject of criticism for a long time. However, that hasn’t stopped millions of girls and women from making Fair & Lovely a household staple since the 70s. Fair & Lovely started out with pretty blatant ads that were not just colorist, but sexist as well. One classic ad featured a dark skinned woman resolving to become a “son” for her retired, poor father, by using F&L and landing a job as a flight attendant. Other brands like Pond’s followed suite. They made ads that essentially sent out the message “Get white. Get a boyfriend.” These ads showed actress Priyanka Chopra losing her boyfriend to another girl when she was visibly dark-skinned. After using Pond’s White Beauty, she gained the attention of her boyfriend once again. Chopra claims she was naive at the time, despite continuing such endorsements after breaking into Hollywood.
These brands poisoned the minds of girls everywhere. They made them believe that the only way to become successful at work, love, and life was to use these brands’ creams. Over time, their ads have become more vague and discreet. As if that’s going to hide the fact that they’re still fairness cream companies capitalizing on our insecurities.
Where does George Floyd’s death come into this?
It’s pretty insane when you realize that protests happening in the United States against longstanding racism and police brutality, triggered by the death of George Floyd, are indirectly linked to Unilever’s recent statement on twitter:
It took protests against racism and George Floyd’s death in the United States for people in India to realize how problematic Fair & Lovely was, and attack hypocrites who had previously acted in fairness cream ads based on colorism and had also spoken out against racism. Here’s a short summary of this controversy:
Unilever has stated that they’re going to change the brand name. But changing the branding doesn’t change the fact that the product itself is problematic. It’s going to be nearly impossible to eradicate a culture of equating whiteness with beauty. Unilever has played an enormous part in propagating this alongside casteism and eurocentric standards of beauty.
The problem goes deeper.
Fair & Lovely has had to constantly remold itself as a brand to survive criticism – from resorting to more subtle ads that talk about education and laser treatments instead of attracting boys, to losing the shade card that allowed users to check how white they were with prolonged use of Fair & Lovely- and it’s still not enough. Rebranding is a temporary solution, but the product is problematic at its core and needs to be done away with. Chandana Hiran, a woman who started a petition against the brand on Change.org, stated “While I am glad that they’re willing to change the narrative, I really want them to relook at their product in its essence. It’s still fairness cream no matter what they call it.”
Of course, we also can’t let Emami and its advertisements involving Shah Rukh Khan blatantly ridiculing dark-skinned men get away. Obviously Emami does not have the market that F&L does, but that does not make Fair and Handsome’s “Gori Banaaye/Get whiter” message any better.
The stigma of dark skin isn’t probably going away any time soon. But If BLM has taught us anything, it’s that we can bring change on a phenomenal level if we try. UA’s own Roshni Patel ensured that Shaadi.com got rid of their skin color filter by expressing dissent on social media. So keep posting and speaking out, because every word and post makes a better world for the impressionable 12 year olds of tomorrow.