Of skin-whitening creams and racism

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A string of controversial advertisements appeared on televisions across India in the early 2000’s that turned the spotlight on to a decades-long obsession: skin-whitening creams. These commercials, which depicted how fairness equated to success were subsequently pulled after an uproar against them by human rights groups and activists. But over time, the media moved on, leaving behind a host of unanswered questions which buried the issue in the back of people’s minds. Recently, these disputed skin-whiteners’ marketing and advertising practices have been pulled back into the spotlight with organisations calling for a change. Earlier this year, a social media campaign with the hashtag #unfairandlovely went viral, voicing a topic rarely discussed. As the world sat silent, companies exploited decades of conditioning and preconceived notions of beauty to capitalise on a common insecurity.

The white is right mentality, rather the idea of it has taken root globally to the point wherein skin bleaching has become a common practice. Corporations exploited a common insecurity to create a multi-billion dollar industry. Of course, this is how effective advertising works: brands become etched into your psyche, one is conditioned to believe that fairness brings forth happiness, prosperity and wealth, and then millions of humans literally pour bleach onto their skin. This colonialist system is doing a fantastic job to perpetuate what can be considered normalised insanity.

The fairness of one’s skin in India has long been associated with success. Conditioned to think that the colour of one’s skin determines their value, this mentality has seeped into all areas of Indian society: hundreds of thousands of online matrimonial profiles cite the fairness of one’s skin as a highly regarded prospect. It is ranked higher than a university degree or professional status on potential brides’ profiles. Historically, one’s caste or social class is closely identified with skin colour. Brahmins, at the top of the social hierarchy in the caste system, were traditionally fair while lower castes had darker complexions. Sweeping generalisations of colour still being associated with caste [or class] is entrenched in the minds of the elderly. Young women are reprimanded by their elders for getting darker; this allows conditioned beliefs to pass on through generations and seep into the psyche. Companies seeking a profit in a vulnerable market decided to take advantage of these insecurities.

Launching in 1978, Fair and Lovely first targeted women. A growing business in a country where everyone looks to the West for inspiration, the company took full control. Growing at a 10-15 per cent per annum, it has also expanded to multiple countries outside of India including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Ghana, and other parts of Africa. With a staggering 50-70 per cent share of the market in India, valued at over 1.2 crores INR ($179,000 USD), Fair and Lovely is the highest selling skin whitening cream in India.

When it came to the marketing and advertising of these products, companies zeroed in on the lack of self-confidence felt by women whose complexion was considered dark. Marketing for the product implied that fairer skin equates to beauty, confidence and success. An advertisement for Fair and Lovely featured a father struggling financially saying, “If only I had a son,” while his daughter, who is perceived to be dark-skinned, looks on despondent and discouraged. Apparently, she cannot help support her family. The commercial then cuts to the daughter after using the advertised product, now dressed in a mini-skirt, working as a flight attendant, taking her father to a 5-star restaurant where the family radiates happiness.

When such commercials ran on television screens around the turn of the millennium, they drew the ire of the public and were eventually pulled. Companies needed to promote their products somehow. They turned to Bollywood celebrities: In a five-part commercial for Pond’s, famous Bollywood actor Saif Ali Khan, picks the fairer skinned girl, Neha Dhupia, over the darker Priyanka Chopra. He changes his decision after Chopra switches to Pond’s whitening product. Former Miss Universe, Aishwarya Rai has also helped promote skin-whitening creams. Companies knew that the weight of these Indian celebrities could do more for them than any marketing or advertising campaign.

Men are also not exempt from these ideals. And companies have noticed, targeting them with specialised skin whitening products endorsed by the likes of John Abraham for Garnier and Shahid Kapoor for Vaseline – Fair and Lovely have their own brand for men called Fair & Handsome. Apps have also been developed by Unilever, the manufacturer of Vaseline-based products, that allow men to upload their photos and see what their faces would look like if their skin were lightened.

Fairness creams, like any other skin-care product, have made permanent homes on the toiletry shelves of many men.

As with anything else, people started to tire of these prejudices. The disgruntling of the public led Kavitha Emmanuel, an activist and founder of Chennai-based NGO, Women of Worth, to start a campaign. Launching in 2009, the Dark Is Beautiful campaign (DIB) has gained significant momentum.The inspiration for it occurred when Emmanuel “came across a collection of artwork created by a high school student who was left ashamed of her dark skin throughout her childhood,” she said. In combating these issues, for Emmanuel, “Dark Is Beautiful’s greatest achievement in its seven years was when we started a national and international conversation about the issue, which led to new guidelines surrounding advertising in India.” For Emmanuel, that is a success because people can feel accepted and share their stories when they would repress their feelings in the past.

The rules, which were only drafted in July of 2014, state the following:

1) Advertising should not communicate any discrimination as a result of skin colour

2) Advertising should not use post-production visual effects on the model(s) to show exaggerated product efficacy

3) Advertising should not associate darker or lighter colour skin with any particular socio-economic strata, caste, community, religion, profession or ethnicity

4) Advertising should not perpetuate gender-based discrimination because of skin colour

Despite being in effect for almost two years now, the advertisers have found loopholes and haven’t stopped the practices. Instead of their discriminatory advertisements, Fair and Lovely now have videos depicting how their products empower women, a fact women tend to believe. “In rural areas, we’d find a tube of skin whitening products. They may not have a square meal a day but we’d see a toxic product on their shelf,” said Emmanuel, who has spent extensive time in the field doing research.

The recent changes in these advertising guidelines may be just the start of a new movement, but one of the biggest issues for the DIB campaign has been how most Bollywood films call for skin-lightening. Nandita Das, the spokesperson for the campaign and respected Bollywood actress, is all too familiar with this, “I have had directors/camerapersons telling me that it would be good if I made my skin lighter as I was playing an educated upper-class woman!”

What Women of Worth would like to see is the filtering of media in a country that emulates celebrities, hero worshipping to the point where people are trying to measure their relationships with one another to the movies on-screen. The DIB campaign has started a media literacy program to help combat this issue on a systemic level. According to Kavitha Emmanuel, they’re “equipping children with tools to make wise choices by empowering kids with life skills.” They are even trying to get teachers and parents involved, to ensure that everyone works as a team.

Slowly it seems to be working as more Bollywood celebrities are shifting opinions. Vishakha Singh, a former Fair and Lovely spokesperson, and actor Rupinder Nagra have started backing campaigns like DIB, voicing their concerns with these products. Through the various campaigns and the growing concern about skin-whitening products, the detrimental health effects are becoming better understood. The creams are not natural. They are full of chemicals that can damage internal organs and affect the placenta during pregnancy. It can increase the chances of skin disease and sensitivity to the sun. Yet a company like Dove, which preaches self-esteem in Western countries through viral videos sells skin whitening products in India. “We wrote to them a while back,” said Ms Emmanuel. “We haven’t heard back.”

The future doesn’t look bright for these products. Rather, society seems to be collectively understanding both the harmful physical and psychological effects of them. With high-profile names like Nandita Das and Vishakha Singh backing these campaigns, more and more stories are coming to the fore creating momentum for these campaigns. Countries like Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have banned skin lighteners nationally with other countries in Africa starting campaigns against these harmful products.

Kavitha Emmanuel sounded excited when discussing the future, “It’s sort of becoming a movement. I know for a fact that young people have left skin colour bias behind. We need many such student movements. We need many more people talking about it.” DIB has recently opened up a new chapter in Hyderabad and they plan to open more in Bangalore, Delhi and another major metropolis. Emmanuel can envision a future where these chapters can be housed internationally in the likes of Sri Lanka and Nepal, in neighbouring countries where she knows skin colour discrimination is just as detrimental. In the short-term, DIB is focusing on translating their material into vernacular languages: Telugu, Hindi and Tamil, for now. They want to create change in media and see the inclusion of different skin colours in movies and TV shows.

Like any other activist, Emmanuel applauds the work done on social media, especially with the #unfairandlovely campaign, “It’s great that many such movements exist.” But, she knows the real work comes from being off the internet, “If you want to really see change, we need to take it beyond social media and onto the street. We need to concentrate on other areas. We’re out there going door to door, college to college, through other platforms.” Focusing on rural areas, they want to ensure that this generation and the next gets the message that the colour of your skin, no matter if you’re ‘wheatish-brown’, ‘dark and dusky’ or ‘fair and lovely’, every skin colour is and always has been beautiful. And despite what you may believe, it’s the educated, the privileged in India who aspire to be fairer: “In my experience, what I have seen is that it is the educated that are so well aware, we still practice the bias, we still discriminate based on skin colour.”

Colourism is a form of racism. It affects people’s livelihoods whether through employment prospects, potential marriage partners or getting abused by family members and friends. This hangover from the colonial period has allowed whiteness to still be associated with wealth and better opportunities. Prevalent not only in India, but most countries that were colonised and where a “white is right” mentality still reigns, it’s a long path to unlearning decades of conditioning. Campaigns like Dark is Beautiful, social media movements, activists like Kavitha Emmanuel and high-profile names like Nandita Das have started the discussion on skin bleaching. No one is under any illusion that these beliefs will disappear in a year; it’ll take five, ten years, maybe. As long as we stick to the right path and affect society’s mentality on a global scale, we will start to see the beauty within ourselves.