Consumer goods marketer Hindustan Unilever Limited recently announced that it would rebrand its fairness cream, Fair and Lovely to Glow and Lovely. In 2019, HUL had removed the shade guide from the packaging of the fairness cream along with the cameo with two faces. Prior to HUL, Johnson and Johnson had also announced its decision to discontinue its skin whitening cream range.
These changes come in the wake of widespread global conversations revolving around colour and racism, following George Floyd’s death in the United States. Many companies in the US have been doing their bit of soul searching and rebranding to remove products and perceptions which cement racist stereotypes.
HUL’s move has been met with both appreciation, and scepticism of whether it would really work in a country which equates fairness with beauty and even success. Walk into any salon or shop in India, especially in the smaller towns, and its shelves are full of skin lightening creams and fairness treatment options.
We’re committed to a skin care portfolio that's inclusive of all skin tones, celebrating the diversity of beauty. That’s why we’re removing the words ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ & ‘lightening’ from products, and changing the Fair & Lovely brand name.https://t.co/W3tHn6dHqE— Unilever #StaySafe (@Unilever) June 25, 2020
The market for fairness creams has been growing exponentially - it was, in fact, estimated to touch Rs 5,000 crores by 2023. Fair and Lovely holds nearly 70 per cent market share in India.
The desire for a fairer skin
This fetish for fair skin is ingrained in us right from before we are born. Most expecting mothers in India are told to consume saffron milk daily, arising out of a belief that saffron increases their chances of giving birth to a child with fair skin. Some pregnant women are even advised by family members to avoid drinking tea and coffee or eating any dark coloured food, lest they give birth to dark children!
After birth, a child’s skin tone is compared with that of their siblings or even their parents. “Oh, she/he has her mother’s/father’s colour,” is a common statement heard in many Indian households. I even know of mothers who actively discourage their children from playing outdoors when it is sunny as they do not want their skins to tan.
Matrimonial website Shaadi.com may have removed their fairness filter from the website, however, how much would that affect the desire for wanting a bride/groom of a particular shade, that is so ingrained in our society? Most matrimonial columns in websites, apps and newspapers have fair skin as a selling point and a requirement. Many, who face the fear of rejection basis their skin tone, have even been known to alter their photographs to look fairer.
Further, just by rebranding a product does not change its composition. Fairness creams not only harm perceptions but are harmful to health as well. The World Health Organisation has warned of the harmful ingredients present in certain skin-lightening creams, especially mercury and the bleaching agent hydroquinone. According to the United Kingdom’s Local Government Association (LGA), hydroquinone, in particular, is the “biological equivalent of paint stripper,” removing the top layer of the skin.
List of Indian actors who are speaking on BLM and their fairness cream ads, a thread : pic.twitter.com/yUeRNLch6U— anti pigeon (@aluminiummaiden) May 31, 2020
While advertisements have become more inclusive and sensitive now, there are many that still feed on the consumer’s insecurities by creating an image that the only way one can become successful, get a job, own a house, and get married, is by becoming fair. And this fetish is not restricted to women – many fairness products are being launched for men as well.
Our celebrities have also played a major role in instilling these stereotypes. Social media users have been calling out the hypocrisy of celebrities who have tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter and against racism, while endorsing skin lightening creams themselves.
In 2017, actor Abhay Deol triggered a debate on skin tone and racism when he called out Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Siddharth Malhotra for propagating the idea that light skin is better through their ads.
Shah Rukh Khan has been the face of Emami’s Fair and Handsome for close to a decade now. In one of their earlier campaigns, the actor spoke about how he became a superstar because he wanted zyaada (more) out of life, and how the Fair and Handsome cream helped him attain his superstardom. At the end of the film, he is shown throwing a tube of the fairness cream to an aspiring young man. This ad clearly emphasises the dangerous mindset that we have on equating fairness with success.
German skincare brand Nivea had to apologise and take down a highly racist ad, this time an international one, which caused much controversy. In the ad posted on its Middle East pages, the brand equated white to purity, causing much uproar online.
The fight against the fairness fetish
On a positive note, though, celebrities have increasingly been facing backlash for endorsing fairness products. There have also been actors such as Kangana Ranaut, Ranbir Kapoor and Randeep Hooda who have refused lucrative fairness endorsement offers to endorse fairness creams.
Actress Nandita Das, who has actively promoted the cause of colour, joined the Chennai based Women of Worth group’s anti-colourism campaign, ‘Dark is Beautiful’ in 2013. The group has constantly raised a voice against portraying colour stereotypes in the media, aiming to draw attention to the unjust effects of skin colour bias and celebrate the beauty and diversity of all skin tones. In fact, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) in 2014, clamped down on companies selling fairness products by portraying dark-skinned women as being less successful, post a petition by Women of Worth.
The ASCI had said, “No advertisement should communicate any discrimination or reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour.” But, that has not stopped companies from blatantly marketing their fairness products in a society that worships fair skin, and even blames failure, on colour.
In 2019, Das reinvented the Dark is Beautiful campaign to ‘India’s Got Colour’, to celebrate the many different shades of skin tone that makes the country so beautiful. The actress released a video featuring celebrities and people including Swara Bhaskar, Radhika Apte, Vikrant Massey and Divya Dutta.
However, while these are definitely steps towards ending discrimination it will need a complete overhaul of the collective mindset of the society, to bring about a change and end the prejudice that is shown against dark-skinned people, and the superiority factor that is associated with fairness.