By Sivakami Prasanna
On June 25, 2020, Hindustan Unilever Limited made the historic decision to drop the word “fair” from Fair & Lovely fairness cream that enjoyed uninterrupted precedence over South Asia’s 5000 crore fairness cream marketing industry. The step, though perhaps commendable, has come under scrutiny because of the backdrop in which it emerged.
The past month witnessed a series of protests all across the globe following the police brutality and murder of George Floyd. Millions flocked to protests and parades even amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Corporate voices were quick to understand and respond to the changing nature of consumerism. Companies like Nike, Netflix, Reddit, and Twitter showed support for the BLM movement as other big corporations too followed suit. However, the track records of these companies were soon pulled out which revealed ‘all talk and no actions’ rhetoric even in the past. Millions made promises to fight systematic racism as several events and instances of the normalization of the social virus came to light. Celebrities took to social media to tweet and post their support for Black Lives Matter conveniently forgetting the Fairness Creams they had endorsed just a few years ago.
HUL’s decision to revamp fair and lovely came amidst this turmoil. The attempt is to create a more inclusive and diverse understanding of beauty. The question remains: is the move an attempt to be politically correct and increase its consumer base or does Fair & Lovely really care about making a change?
Fair & Lovely however needs to answer several more questions along with this change. Colourism is an offshoot of racism. Ever since Fair & Lovely was unveiled in India in 1978, our televisions, magazines, and billboards have been flooded with fair-skinned beauties whose lives were transformed with a single dab of the magic cream. Cosmetic use is linked to the need for belongingness, acceptance, admiration, respect, and ultimately success. A close analysis of old Fair & Lovely advertisements will not only make you cringe but also reflect how these advertisements cashed in on sexism and sell the message that fairness creams allow a woman access to male power, privilege, and admiration.
“Perhaps the reason Krishna and I got along so well was that we were both severely dark-skinned. In a society that looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk and almond hues, this was considered most unfortunate, especially for a girl.”
In these lines from Chitra Banerjee’s novel Palace of illusions, Draupadi describes her struggle with dark skin. In a society where divine beings spend hour upon excruciating hour being slathered with skin whitening exfoliants, normal mortals would not be an exception.
Colourism is a form of discrimination that is not openly recognised or discussed. It is no surprise that in India, colourism is closely linked to the caste system, patriarchal society, and her history of colonization.
The Aryans had migrated to the Indian subcontinent around 3500 years ago. India was occupied by the “dark-skinned” Dravidians in that period. The Aryans were fair-skinned invaders from central Asia/ Eastern Europe. The Aryans became the rulers and forebearers of the traditional upper caste in the Indian caste structure. The Aryan Invasion theory, though a widely contested subject, was upheld by the British because it struck a very interesting parallel with the new white-skinned rulers who were “merely repeating history by civilizing the barbarians.” Beginning thus with the Aryan Invasion theory, fair skin began to be associated with power, intellect, and civilization, while dark skin started to be associated with negative values, creating problematic and opposing binaries. The various classifications that are diffused in the Indian society’s history have often been overlapping: caste, sub-caste, varna, class, Jati, and Kula. The varna system as described by the Rig Veda was categorized into four types based on birth, from which emerged thousands of Jatis and Sub Jatis. The symbolic characterization of the four varnas and the story of their origin from the Purushasuktha dictated the division of labour in the society. There was a sharp divide between different castes prohibiting any inter-caste interactions like marriage. The caste system assigned the manual work and physical labour to the lower strata of the caste structure. Long days spent under the sun must have led to the tanning of their skin, which was subsequently passed down from one generation to another. The India we live in today, people are quick to link one’s skin colour to one’s position in the caste hierarchy.
Fair-skinned individuals are often assumed to belong to the higher ranks of the society while dark-skinned people are attributed a lower position in the caste structure. Skin colour thus becomes a status symbol. As such, there is no established causal relationship between skin colour and caste. However, the perception surrounding this is entrenched in the minds of our society enabling the caste-based narrative of skin colour. While age-old traditions have been used to explain the caste structure, there are no written records that confirm the colourism bias.
British rule began in India in 1757. The white rulers were fair with distinct facial features. The Orientalist writings and artwork show the British as a more intelligent and superior race that had the burden of civilizing dark-skinned Indians. It was under the British that the bias against darker skin started to be institutionalized and politicized. Practices that restricted Indians from entering into white clubs and restaurants were common, creating a very sharp divide. When town-planning was carried out in the Madras presidency under the British, the area inhabited by the Whites was called the white town and the area around it where the natives lived was called the black town. These instances of public display of condemning the Indian race succeeded in embedding race-based ideologies in the darker-skinned individuals within the subcontinent. There was a general notion that whiteness equated to superiority, modernity, and certain kinds of achievements, like scientific and industrial advancements which are usually identified with Europeans. Those perceptions are still very much present in the 21st century and there is a certain amount of admiration for this and a desire to imitate these achievements. Thus, it was the coming of the British that reinforced, strengthened, and institutionalized colourism.
Globalization continued the bias that colonialism had left unfinished. Western ideals and unrealistic beauty standards travelled from West to the Indian markets where customers who buy into this mentality try to lighten their skin tones a bit more so that they can finally see themselves reflected in the billboards that dominate urban and rural public domains.
As India’s obsession with fairness grew so did the market for Fair & Lovely. New products were unveiled by companies like Emami, Ponds, Garnier, and many more, promising fairness, brightness, and radiance. The franchise soon spread to shower gels, sunscreens, and even vaginal creams. These capitalized and reaped profits from people’s insecurities. The cost at which people became “lovely and handsome” was severe as many of these fairness creams contained high levels of toxins like mercury and mercury derivatives, potent cortisone, and more than two percent hydroquinone that affected an individual’s health. Over time these products made both women and men experience an erosion of self-esteem, self-confidence and increased perceptions of inferiority.
The perpetrators of these ideals were many, from our families, to media, music, mythology, and even comic books like ACK. As a brown child growing up in India you are subjected to taunts, nicknames, and derogatory comments along with helpful organic face-pack advice that is freely dispensed. I wouldn’t probably be the only teenager who spends hour after hour with milk and besan scrubbing resolutely my skin willing it to be fairer and my life perhaps a bit easier.
Internalizing the values associated with dark skin can and has eroded an individual’s self- worth and destroyed their opportunities. They start fostering self-hatred which eventually leads individuals to depression and other mental illnesses, forcing them to live with a sense of inferiority which makes them accept both emotional and physical abuse unquestioningly.
Activism against colourism did develop, even though the process was slow and erratic. Campaigns like “Dark is Beautiful” (that later developed into “India’s Got Colour”), “Unfair and Lovely” and “Dark is Divine” has led to a celebration of skin colours of all shades with an outpouring of support on social media from all over the world.
Fair & Lovely thus has a lot more to apologize for before it removes the fair from the product’s name. The change is welcome and should be applauded even though it was a result of changing consumer preferences and performative activism rather than a change in the brand’s ethics or principles. Removing the product from the market would mean losing an enormous revenue, though ethically right, the action cannot even be imagined.
Silence around colourism has validated and concealed the issue. The lack of attention given to the physical, mental, and social consequences of the normalization of pigmentocracy in society will continue to lead to severe consequences for individuals and communities. Before anything, Fair & Lovely owes me and millions of others an apology, a moral reparation for normalizing discrimination, and increasing colourism and influencing our lives in a way that would take us years of therapy and positive support to get over. Removing the cream from the market would be a good way to begin the fight against colourism. If not followed up by suitable actions, these changes and actions would be empty. Only time will tell whether HUL was concerned with embracing diversity or if the change was merely an urge to be politically correct.
Sivakami Prasanna is an undergraduate student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur. Her areas of interest are gender studies, sociology, and development economics. She is a voracious reader who believes that reading will change the world one day.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.