“Kitna kaala ho gaya hai! [You’ve become so dark!]” As a kid coming home for the holidays every year, I frequently heard these exclamations of simultaneous pity and surprise from friends and family alike, followed by sagacious advice to avoid walking directly in sunlight. Fortunately, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) offered an easy alternative to avoiding sunlight forever: Fair & Lovely. “Fair & Lovely’s skin-lightening technology is known to be the best in the world! However, this hasn’t stopped the brand from innovating further to pioneer the development of cutting-edge fairness solutions.” The television and internet advertisements were ubiquitous- women with before and after pictures showing staggering progress and visibly lighter skin. Unhappy, unattractive faces seamlessly transformed into beautiful, smiling, white ones. All in a matter of weeks. Needless to say, I owned a tube or two of these magic lotions, but they always had to be applied in secret, because they were marketed for women even though the desire for lighter skin transcended gender boundaries.
Of course, we did not have to wait long for the markets to deliver a product oriented to men’s needs. In 2005, Emami introduced Fair & Handsome, “a handsome way to fight oil, sweat and dirt,” which obviously meant that men sneaking Fair & Lovely creams could come out of the shadows and purchase these products with confidence. The stigma was over! What I failed to understand at the time was that ‘oil, sweat and dirt’ were also couched synonyms for blackness, and the conversation we needed to have was being overshadowed by successful marketing.
To be fair, the criticism leveled against the relentless marketing of fairness creams and the exploitation of age old class and caste norms is not new. We all know fairness is equated with beauty and confidence in India, and HUL and Emami have simply profited off our desire for a lighter complexion. The proliferation of fairness creams is only a symptom of the larger problem- our discomfort with blackness, which has a much longer history. Some blame the British for leaving behind a legacy of favoring whiteness and equating it with power, but preference for lighter complexions predates even the British. In the 15th century for instance, Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin traveled to modern-day Maharashtra and observed that:
“In the land of India, it is the custom for foreign traders to stop at inns; there the food is cooked for the guests by the landlady, who also makes the bed and sleeps with the stranger. Women that know you willingly concede their favours, for they like white men.” (Source: Voyage to India)
Historically, India has been home to a series of dynasties and considerable foreign influence. It is difficult to ascertain precisely when lighter skin became preferable, and the confluence of skin color, caste and class is difficult to disentangle. References to ancient Hindu religion and mythology however, indicate a different reverence and norm for beauty. Lord Krishna and Draupadi, for instance, are both depicted with dark skin, and yet they epitomize beauty and attraction in ancient Hindu culture.
Modern-day culture, on the other hand, is rife with fair skinned role models and celebrities which indicate an altered aesthetic preference. Age-old caste, class and beauty norms ingrained in our psyche will not be overcome easily. However, if more actors, sports celebrities, and other role models actively follow in Kangana Ranaut’s footsteps and speak out against the discriminatory and exploitative nature of the fairness cream industry, perhaps we can make some headway in prompting a national conversation about this issue. Men, in particular, need to stand with women who have boldly spoken out against this social evil, because most of the advocacy against these creams comes from women who are quickly written off as angry feminists. #MalePrivilege. If we can use social media and television in a savvy manner to portray dark skin as a symbol of beauty and pride, we may be able to shift the social consciousness around this ingrained norm that we take for granted. We have gone from a time when select creams would target consumers with their skin-lightening potential to an era where you would be hard pressed to find beauty products without some kind of skin-whitening agent. As my roommate once observed, more households had access to brand name fairness creams than medications in the underserved area where he worked. Whether it be avoiding sunlight or applying fairness creams in copious amounts, perhaps it is finally time to shed these short-term and superficial attempts to escape our entrenched class and caste norms and embrace our bodies as they are.
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