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Tuesday, Jun 30, 2020 13:15 [IST]

Last Update: Tuesday, Jun 30, 2020 07:43 [IST]

Not fair

It is a no brainer that we Indians are obsessed with fair skin. A perfect life from perfect skin – but only for those of the right shade – is the message and mindset that’s being passed down. This has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry in cosmetic creams and invasive procedures such as skin bleaching, chemical peels, laser treatments, steroid cocktails, “whitening” pills and intravenous injections – all with varying effectiveness and health risks. It’s more than a bias, it’s a dangerous cultural obsession.
For decades, activists in India have tried to get marketers of personal care products to withdraw or quit advertising regressive products such as ‘fairness’ and ‘whitening’ creams, lotions and other cosmetics—but it’s taken the threat of a new law and the global pressure of the Black Lives Matter movement to make one company re-examine its absurd notions of beauty. Hindustan Unilever has finally said that it plans to rename Fair & Lovely and remove words such as ‘fair/fairness’, ‘white/whitening’, and ‘light/lightening’ from packaging and brand communication to go beyond a singular idea of beauty. Several companies have made similar moves to change branding that has links to negative portrayal of black people, with even TV shows being scrapped from streaming services.
Unilever’s move came after it faced backlash for its fairness cream since it propagates the notion that dark skin has less of a social standing than fair skin. Unilever has never shied away from equating fairness with not just beauty, but also confidence, professional success and marital prospects since it launched the product in 1975. Advertisements in the 1980s showed dark-skinned women unable to find husbands or jobs until applying fairness creams to achieve the ‘desirable’ skin tone. These storylines continued in advertisements well into the 21st century.
This was despite the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) issuing guidelines in 2014 that prohibited ads from depicting dark-skinned people as disadvantaged or associating any skin tone with any specific kind of socio-economic class, ethnicity or community. The new draft of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) (Amendment) Bill, 2020, has proposed a hefty fine of ?10 lakh and imprisonment for companies advertising products purported to make a person fairer, among other claims.
In 2019, the Indian fairness cream market was reportedly worth nearly Rs 3,000 crore, according to the India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview (2018-2023). Market revenues were expected to reach Rs 5,000 crore by 2023, the study estimated. This is unsurprising considering skin lightening products take up about half of India’s skincare market, according to a 2019 study by the World Health Organization.
In 2009, Women of Worth (WOW), an NGO founded by Kavitha Emmanuel based in Chennai, began an awareness campaign promoting “Dark is beautiful”. The campaign gained more prominence when actor Nandita Das endorsed it with the slogan: “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful”. The campaign was aimed at redefining beauty norms and changing the idea that dark is undesirable. Actors who previously endorsed fairness creams have come under the radar now for speaking up against race inequality.
The latest move by Unilever and other companies is welcome, but it has taken the threat of punitive action, possible lawsuits and a global movement for the company to re-brand a product that should never have existed. It is highly unfortunate that such creams are popular across South Asia, where complexionism is rampant. The real challenge, of course, is to uproot the deep-seated prejudices that companies that sell fairness creams have helped entrench in societies vulnerable to fake notions of superiority.

Sikkim at a Glance

  • Area: 7096 Sq Kms
  • Capital: Gangtok
  • Altitude: 5,840 ft
  • Population: 6.10 Lakhs
  • Topography: Hilly terrain elevation from 600 to over 28,509 ft above sea level
  • Climate:
  • Summer: Min- 13°C - Max 21°C
  • Winter: Min- 0.48°C - Max 13°C
  • Rainfall: 325 cms per annum
  • Language Spoken: Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan, English, Hindi