How Black Lives Matter Is Challenging India’s Obsession With Fair Skin

In a country where people spend more on skin-whitening creams than on tea, cosmetics companies are scrambling to move with the times.
June 26, 2020, 3:11am
How The Black Lives Matter Movement is Impacting India’s Obsession With Light Skin
A sales assistant wipes Unilever product, Fair and Lovely skin fairness cream at a shop in New Delhi on April 30, 2013. Photo courtesy of Sajjad Hussain / AFP

Skin-lightening brand Fair & Lovely, which earned more than $500 million in sales in India last year, announced on June 25 that it would be removing the word "fair" from its products.

For decades, Indian advertisers have propagated an association between skin fairness with career success, beauty, and social status. In 1975, Fair & Lovely was one of the first brands to monetize India's societal desire for light skin by turning it into a beauty product.

Now, this brand which has spent 45 years building itself into a household name with skin-whitening face creams, is trying to revamp its identity.

The decision comes as the brand’s parent company Unilever faces backlash as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. While Unilever proclaimed its support for the movement and donated more than $1 million, it's been called out for its “performative wokeness.” Critics point out that the brand has spent four decades advocating fair skin across Southern Asia, with most of their advertisements showing women and men with darker skin tones being ridiculed or looked down upon.

But they're not the only brand running to catch up with the changing times.

South Asian dating website Shaadi.com also announced that it was removing its skin-tone search filter option, which lets users search for those with fair, “wheatish” or dark complexions. Of course, this only happened after an Indian-American woman named Hetal Lakhani launched a campaign against the site's owners.

“I have personally been called wheatish countless number of times, and it always sounded condescending,” Lakhani told VICE. “In a way, it sounded like I have lost merit because I am not fair.”

Shaadi.com’s statement said that it was removing the filter as it "was not serving any purpose."

On the same day, Johnson & Johnson also announced it would be taking all skin-lightening products off their shelves after they were accused of promoting systemic racism.

The past few weeks have seen an international wave of apologies and product removals, from Aunt Jemima’s 130-year-old stereotypically racial pancake mix to a Chinese toothpaste branded Darkie that featured a grinning man in blackface.

When Indian celebrities, including actors Priyanka Chopra, Disha Patani and Sonam Kapoor spoke up against discrimination on the basis of skin colour, social media users responded by saying they were a part of the problem by endorsing fairness products.

India’s obsession with light skin has supercharged a multibillion-dollar industry of cosmetic creams and invasive procedures such as skin bleaching, laser treatments, chemical peels, steroids, and even intravenous injections.

The argument against associating fair skin with beauty kicked off with a proposed amendment to advertising laws, which would make promoting skin fairness a punishable offence. Following this announcement in February, Fair & Lovely reworked marketing campaigns riding on the idea of “fairness,” and substituted the word with “glow.”

“Brands know that it is bad business to be antagonizing large segments of vocal consumers who have the power to sway public opinion for or against them,” Karthik Srinivasan, an Indian branding and communications consultant, told VICE.

Many social media users remain skeptical of how much the shift in branding strategies will actually impact behaviour in a society where fairness creams sell more than Coca-Cola and tea.

“There are products that are named even more coarsely, like Vini's White Tone, among others,” Srinivasan points out. “This shift is largely symbolic of the fact that consumers do have a voice and brands must listen. In terms of product benefits, Hindustan Unilever has a 45-year head-start on convincing us what it is for, so that is unlikely to be forgotten soon, regardless of what new name they give their products.”

According to Srinivasan, real change can come from developing role models in multiple spheres including cinema, politics, academics, and sports to not just spout wisdom, but live by a code that shuns skin color-based discrimination.

“The fairness advertising industry should have taken responsibility a long time ago, but regardless, this is a milestone moment,” says Kavitha Emmanuel, the founder of women’s issue NGO Women of Worth. Emmanuel, who launched the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign in 2009 to combat colorism and offensive stereotypes feels the anti-racism movement has been a wakeup call for brands that chose to feign ignorance.

The global skin-lightening market is expected to be a $13.7 billion industry by 2025, with Asia-Pacific accounting for 54.3 percent of that figure, according to a 2019 Grand View Research report.

India’s obsession with fairness isn’t nearly as problematic as the cases of caste and religion-based discrimination that occur.

Emmanuel points out how discrimination on the basis of skin colour is interconnected to other toxic beliefs. “Colorism is inextricably linked to other issues of systemic injustice including racism, classicism and even casteism. It is intraracial and interracial. A dark-skinned person is usually associated with the so-called lower-caste and discriminated against.”

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