Why fare is the business of fairness creams?

Like most people, I possess a set of unique and twisted insecurities. In fact, I suspect that I am far more insecure than your average Anita. And yet, there is one aspect about my physical appearance that people of my country are surprised to find I genuinely don't give a shade about -- my skin colour, a fairly common, darker shade of the Indian brown.


I have managed to secure jobs that I aspired for without being discriminated against. And I have enjoyed attention from all kinds of men, including successful and good-looking ones. Yet, everyday I am told differently. That because I am dark, I will not get my dream job or the man I want. That, I will be unsuccessful, miserable and unhappy, all because of my skin colour.


Welcome to the unfortunate business of fairness creams in India.

Colours of history –


Maybe, our colonial past has us feeling deeply inferior about our brown skin. Or it's our caste system and the widely prevalent belief that fair people belong to higher castes. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word for caste, 'Varna', literally translates to colour.


Although, in recent years, experts have said that the colours or Varnas on which the castes were divided – white, red, yellow and black – does not imply skin colour. "It's not so much the caste system but regional differences that give Indians different skin shades. In northern India, because of their history, people tend to be light-skinned," says Sociologist Anupama Gandotra. Historically, northern India has been more vulnerable to invasion and foreign settlers and north Indians are commonly perceived as fairer than south Indians. However, dark and fair-skinned people can be seen across the country.


Maybe I don't care so much about colour because I grew up in the nineties in urban India, when the country was on the cusp of change and the caste system -- at least in the cities -- was losing its stronghold. Commercialism hadn't spread its tentacles yet and at age 13, I was not bombarded with advertisements telling me that I should slather my face with chemicals for a better life.


The business of fairness -


The opening up of India's, socialist-inspired economy in the last decade has led to a barrage of multinational cosmetic companies dying to dig into their share of the fairness cream profits.


From a few major players in the nineties the market today explodes with choices. As per AdEx India, an ad monitoring agency, the frequency of fairness cream advertising rose to 56% in the first half of 2003, as compared to 2004. And AC Nielsen, the global market research agency with a strong presence in the country, has predicted that the fairness cream industry will be worth over 400 million by the end of this year.


Noted business columnist and author Sucheta Dalal says, "Every MNC in India is hawking versions of fairness creams today or project moisturisers with 'white' or 'whiteness' as a pre-fix. Often, they may have just a much needed sun block, but they are projected as whitening agents, under the sales pitch of white is beautiful.


"The advertising for these products perpetuates the myth that a person instantly becomes more qualified for a job or does better, because she is fairer. In most countries, this would have attracted protest or litigation."


Can you imagine L'Oreal implying through their adverts, in countries like the UK or the US, that white skin was superior? L'Oreal and other MNCs like Neutrogena, Nivea and Unilever are constantly reinforcing this message in India.


Sucheta was invited to judge and pick potential candidates for scholarships offered by a fairness cream brand, which she turned down. "It was presented as a noble gesture for the underprivileged, so the others who took my place didn't mind."

The market-share wars are reflected in the advertising, with every brand promising extraordinary results. Celica Nair, an advertising copywriter who has worked on a fairness cream brand, says, "The fairness cream market is getting increasingly cluttered, we have to give a brand the differentiator it needs to attract users. Whether it's with the promise of a better life or the words we use. That's why there is so much hard-sell – tall claims of whiteness, pearl complex, gold radiance and gimmicks like shade meters." (Shade meters are strips with different skin-shades so the user gets to 'measure' the progress!)


"What next, I wonder! A silver face?" chuckles Celica in a lighter moment. But millions of people fall for these claims. As writer and editor Rashmi Deshpande who shot a documentary on fairness cream users says, "A teenager said he used the cream to get better grades at school, because he was conditioned to believe that fair people were smarter." When Rashmi gently suggested that studying harder might help, he seemed unconvinced.


Colourism fuelled by commercialism –


Unfortunately, despite its economic progress in recent years, India is plagued with numerous gender and development issues. It has been the norm to talk about skin colour preferences openly for centuries, with every young male – strapping or not -- desirous of a fair bride. That's why there has been very little protest by the public and the media.


Just a little over half a century ago, when the British ruled the country, the 'Gora' (which translates to the colour 'white' and is also slang for white-foreigner) was intensely disliked. But today, in India's burgeoning fashion and beauty industry, white, Caucasian models are ruling the roost. In fact, recently, a Brazilian model played the second lead in a hit Hindi film, clad in traditional Indian outfits, at about 5'10 and with very light skin, she was seen as the ideal (if not real!) Indian beauty.


Flip through every magazine and it is obvious that white models are de rigueur. Rashmi Deshpande, who is also the Assistant Editor of Femina -- India's largest selling and oldest women's magazine -- defends the trend. "Our decision to use pictures with white models is not always driven by prejudice or preference. We work under tight deadlines, don't always have the time for shoots and use stock images. It's practically impossible to find a good range of pictures with Asian or Hispanic models from popular stock-image sites," she says. 

Rashmi says that Femina never promotes the use of fairness creams or the idea of fairness in their beauty articles or stories. However, most women's glossies including the recently launched Indian editions of international magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire feature advertisements of fairness creams.


The prejudice against dark males in India has been subtler, but when recent market research uncovered that over 20% of fairness creams meant for women were being used by men, companies flooded the market with fairness creams for men. One of the first commercials targeting men, almost shamed them into buying a cream specifically tailored for them.


While India still remains largely socially conservative, life has changed for millions in the country. The growth has by no means been inclusive but economic progress has been driving independence in lifestyle and thinking for many. Women constitute a large part of the country's white-collar workforce, an increasing number of youngsters are choosing their own partners, liberal thinking has created a hybrid, modern Indian culture and Caste does not rule in most of the country's sprawling cities. Given time, the obsession with fairness might have faded, were it not for the greed of the cosmetic companies that profit from fuelling 'colourism' in modern India.





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