Selling Fairness: An Unfair Business

My mother is darker than most of our family and she has never used any fairness product. But she has always had this notion, drilled into her head from an early age, that she was not beautiful, because she was not the right degree of fair. To her and everyone else’s surprise then, she was the only one of her siblings who got a proposal from a man much fairer than her. He was attracted to her for her education, personality and the way he felt when he interacted with her. My very fair Uncle on the other hand, married a woman many shades darker than him because of a certain attitude she carried. None of these real life stories make their way into popular discourse on either romance, or marriage or the importance or not of fairness. 

Never mind that ours is a country of so many shades of brown and pink and everything else in between. Never mind that Draupadi of Mahabharata was also called Krishnaa, or the dark one. Never mind that Parvati, the daughter of Himalaya himself, the abode of snow, was said to be a dusky beauty. Somewhere between out ancient literature and myths and our present day media images and messages, the story of beauty seems to have become all about just one thing - light skin above everything else. Which is the most sinister and insidious thing to do in a place where most people are on the heavier side of melanin distribution in skin. The fair skinned foreign powers that ruled us had their power game to insist that fair was beautiful, but we as sovereign people do not have to buy that thought anymore. Varied skin tones exist here as a result of various geographical, biological, historical and genetic factors. And yet, we seek the unnatural goal of melanin denial in a land of strong sun. Because, well, consumerism and corporate profits can sell ice to Eskimos. 

And so, we have the ridiculous scenario at the National Museum shop in Delhi selling replicas of famous ancient sculpture in white stone and marble, when the originals in the same museum are actually in darker stones. Older idols of Ram and Krishna in temples and in paintings were always a dark hue, but are now found to be white or a lighter shade than before, more and more. 

I grew up in a household free of Fair & Lovely. We were taught that one went out made the world look at you in terms of talent, achievement, personality and behavior rather than at face value. The refusal to be seduced by sexy marketing is one of the most powerful legacies from my mother to me. But just the reverse is happening in previously media dark areas with the onslaught of deeper brand marketing penetration. For millions of consumers, brand communications and advertising deliberately and cleverly manipulate minds, feed fears, and thus sell their so-called solutions. 

Fair & Lovely, the market leader with more than 70% market share of the skin lightening business​, which reinforces some of our worst societal bias, recently crossed the Rs. 2000crore mark in sales, along with the other daily essentials like tea, soap and detergent. Most of the sales and growth in sales for the brand now come from rural areas. Some twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents in a remote tribal area of Orissa, there were only a few teashops that sold basic necessities around our locality. A new highway was being built in the area, and some new mining contracts being given out. A year later, I visited again, and saw hoardings on the newly made highway, a spurt in new shops, and an abundance of branded packaged goods. Television had come to the area along with its 24*7 supply of messages that had little or no representation of local beauty at all. The region was no longer media dark as before, and it had acquired a great shame about its natural skin color. The message of ‘you are not okay and so you need to use me’ - the typical baseline push of any seller, had made an inroad into minds. 

My mother’s house help’s daughter begged us for money on the sly, so she could buy Fair & Lovely. Perhaps, she said, could get away from the village, and maybe even take a train to a bigger town. How do you tell a teenager that she is chasing a chimera, without sounding too smug? What if the same resources that went into making and pushing such discriminatory products were invested in actually empowering women, instead of creating wants that needn’t be there? 

It is an irony missed by many that the advertising stories that show an educated career minded girl improving her chances by turning some shades fairer, or the programs of rural marketing that makes women promote products like Fair & Lovely as part of their business inventory, are actually keeping women trapped into the images that are anything but empowering. Fairness products are racist and discriminatory, and their advertising and sale disempowers whole communities. Fair & Lovely places its brand offer as ‘Re-scripting Destiny’. While what is does is to tell women that their destiny is to be forever an object of desire, and as an object of desire, to be dark is unfortunate. That to be fair is what all women must aspire to. It is a brand premise that insults and objectifies woman in the most fundamental of ways, starting right with the name of the brand itself. 

When my Mother was a little schoolgirl, and branded beauty soaps had started advertising in Newspapers and magazines and on billboards, a relative told her to be smarter, and to use the latest soap being advertised, to make herself ‘cleaner’. That if she didn’t do so, she wouldn’t find anyone good to marry her. When my mother said she was going to be a workingwoman and would not need a husband, her relative said who would employ a dirty looking girl like her. Mother has not forgiven her Uncle his comment, ever. She has not forgotten that in the eyes of some, she was somehow less than wholesome for her skin color. But as a society, we seem to forgive fairness products their unfair messages to us, and forget that we are more than our skin color.

About the Author

Kiran Chaturvedi

Kiranjeet Chaturvedi is a sociologist by education and the founder of  the NCR’s pioneering Write & Beyond writing workshop and support group, is a mentor to many early stage writers. Her book reviews, opinion columns and short stories have been published in India and abroad.