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Can Black Lives Matter Change India’s Perspectives of Colour and Beauty?

The idea that skin fairness is equal to beauty has long been a part of Asian culture, especially in countries like India. A holdover from the colonial past, this idea  – mostly targeted at women – has been the bedrock for a small but thriving skin lightening cream market. However, can the Black Lives Matter movement change Asian perspectives of colour and beauty?

The India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview estimated that the fairness cream market was worth approximately £306,000  in 2019. The study estimated that number to jump up to around £512,000 by 2023.

Now, however, things don’t look so rosy for the industry. Spurred by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US, brands in India like Hindustan Unilever’s Fair & Lovely have been forced to rethink how they market their products. With race and skin tone becoming global flashpoints for engagement, brands are being challenged to reflect more inclusivity in their products. It’s a fight that has been going on for over a decade in India, and now finally the BLM movement may be the spark the nation needs.

On June 25 2020, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) announced that Fair & Lovely would be rebranded as Glow & Lovely. French giant L’Oreal followed suit, and Johnson & Johnson decided to shut its Neutrogena fairness cream line altogether. But can renaming fairness creams really change our perspectives of colour and beauty? Unfortunately, it seems maybe not.

Colourism’ as the practice in the glamour world is also known as, is perhaps the most visible form of racism in the subcontinent. Photo courtesy: Adam Jones/Flickr

India’s Obsession with Fair Skin

To understand India’s obsession with fair skin, one needs to go back to the colonial era. In a 2015 paper for the Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Neha Mishra wrote: “Invariably, they (the British) provided employment to Indians by allowing them to complete odd jobs or recruiting them for low-ranked army positions. At this juncture, lighter skin Indians were again given preference over their darker counterparts and hired more frequently.” For over 350 years, the idea that light skin is an indication of superiority made its way all throughout India, as well as other parts of the British Empire.

Over the decades, light skin became associated with power, prestige and wealth. Westernised beauty ideals made their way to Asia, by reinforcing the notion through ads showing fairer women getting jobs and husbands. Ancient India did not discriminate on skin colour, some Hindu gods like Ram and Krisha were known for their dark complexions. Sumit Paul, writing in The Hindu noted how dark complexions were preferred in ancient India. According to him, “Ancient Indian literature, mostly in Sanskrit, teems with references to dark complexion as the ‘epitome of beauty’. Shyam varna (dark complexion) of beautiful women egged poets on to write poetry in praise of the ‘twilight beauty’”. British India though, turned that idea on its head and the country hasn’t looked back since.

For decades, fairness cream ads ran the message that women need to be fair to be beautiful and successful. Source: Celoso Film Productions via YouTube

Modern India has upped that idea, with billboards, advertisements and TV spots all depicting light or fair-skinned models. Some of India’s most well-known celebrities like Shah Rukh Khan, Sonam Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai and Deepika Padukone have all endorsed fairness products over the years. It has led to a culture of acceptance, as noted by Dr Ritesh Patel. In research for the International Interdisciplinary Journal, he found that “over 90% of females in India cite skin lightening as a high-need area.” This need stems from advertisements over decades that show fair-skinned girls as better suited for white-collar jobs and marriage. 

Fighting Back Prejudice

Some people though have refused to sit back and accept this prejudice. In 2009, an NGO called Women of Worth began a campaign “Dark is Beautiful”. Endorsed by actress Nandita Das, the campaign aimed to refine the idea of beauty with the slogan “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful”. While they have made inroads, with more and more celebrities refusing to endorse fairness products, the road to overturning centuries of prejudice is long. And unfortunately for the campaign, India’s complex political, social and business structures make it difficult a difficult road to travel. 

Actress Nandita Das in an advert for the Dark is Beautiful campaign.

Rama Bijapurkar, author of We Are Like That Only: Understanding The Logic Of Consumer India believes that anger towards fairness creams is misplaced. Speaking to Live Mint, he said: “Instead of going after bad communication, people are going after the product. The product exists because people want that choice. If, as a dark-skinned south Indian woman, I want to lighten my skin tone, how is it anybody’s business?

She points to ads for gyms and other cosmetics that have set new beauty standards for the body. In a country as vast and diverse as India, Rama believes that customers should have a choice, and it is up to them to decide. For those in metropolitan cities, debates around racism and fairness may influence their choices, but not for the millions in rural India. For them, George Floyd and the BLM movement is a world away. They simply see products like Fair & Lovely as a means to climb the social ladder. The politics over such products does not matter. In such a situation then, what is the value of HUL’s decision to rebrand Fair & Lovely?

Jumping on the Bandwagon

While HUL may have hoped to avoid any criticism with its move, that was not the case. Siddhi Kudalkar, writing for Outlook said: “as much as Unilever’s name change decision appears to be in line with the anti-racism struggle, it is just another capitalist strategy of the corporation to appease the popular public opinion.” She isn’t alone, all over social media thousands of Indians have called out HUL for simply jumping on the bandwagon. 

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,” Chandana Hiran told the BBC. And she’s right. For years, fairness creams and other products have pivoted their marketing from focusing on skin colour to ‘anti-pollution’, ‘removing blackheads’ and other associated with beauty. But at their core, products like Fair & Lovely are still the same – their main use is to change the complexion and skin colour of the user. 

Modern fairness cream ads have pivoted to other selling points like sweat control, sun protection etc. Source: Zinnai Kumar via Pinterest

The Indian government too seems to have finally woken up to this issue. In February 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare finalised the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill 2020. Under the bill, all advertisements that promote fairness creams will be banned. The government has also increased penalties to up to five years imprisonment and a fine of around £51,000. Compared to other industries, that fine is not as steep, but it is considerable nonetheless. 

It is, however, just a start. For over a century, Indians have been taught that it is acceptable to hate darker complexions. This subtle racism has been ingrained in all Indians, across age, gender, social status and religion. Now, however, that status-quo is changing thanks to the increasing presence of social media where traditional views are being challenged. Now people all over the country are waking up to the idea that your skin colour doesn’t define your beauty. But until that discourse makes its way to all parts of the country, you can bet millions of young men and women will be lining up to buy Glow & Lovely. 

Sources: BBC, International Interdisciplinary Journal, Live Mint, Outlook India, Research and Markets, Reuters, The Print, Washington University Global Studies Law Review

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