Fairness has been a status symbol for centuries. It has been so deep-seated that we form first impressions on the basis of skin color rather than personality and body language. Ironically, a woman’s most significant attribute in the Victorian era was to have the most transparent, pale skin possible. A woman’s social rank was determined by her fair and healthy complexion. A lady of better social status would utilize accouterments such as gloves and umbrellas to shield herself from the elements. Cold cream, which was made out of water, oil, an emulsifier, and a thickening agent, became a mainstay in Victorian women’s beauty routines. Cold cream was thought to be excellent for washing the skin and having a moisturizing effect. Therefore it was crucial for Victorian women who desired to keep their skin smooth and delicate.
Today, we Indians continue to put fairness on a pedestal— men, women, EVERYONE! A 2012 survey by the matrimonial website jeevansathi.com found that 71% of women would prefer fair guys for marriage. According to a media story, a senior executive from the portal stated that 65-70% of males on these sites describe their color of skin as ‘fair’. So the bias exists amongst everyone.
Majorly, this obsession was initiated when Unilever unveiled their very, very popular fairness cream in 1975… Fair & Lovely; now known as Glow & Lovely. This started the launch of a plethora of fairness creams such as Naturally Fair, Fairever, FairGlow, and many other products. This became an easy and profitable market, banking on religiously followed celebrities, subliminal messaging, and the feeling of inferiority amongst the population. Also, due to globalization during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the trends of the West were what Indians aspired to be.
The fascination entwined in everyone’s mind made everyone aspire to be fashionable, ‘modern’, beautiful, and most importantly, successful, on Western parameters, especially among women, as they were an oppressed community in India before. Hence, fairness companies strategically incorporated these elements into their marketing. Fairness was projected as the ultimate requirement for success, sometimes in extremely ridiculous ways.
One such ad is actress Genelia D’Souza’s ad for Fair and Lovely. A young D’Souza aspires to be a cricket commentator. When her sister sees this, she encourages her to use the product to become fair. Soon, her employers are charmed by her beauty, she is watched by millions, fans want her autograph, and her mother is moved to tears. Easy peasy, no hard work, no effort, just fairness. Honestly, these ads couldn’t get any dumber. But they seem to work. Even the most popular actors undergo skin-lightening treatments only to fuel this obsession. According to Statista, the Indian fairness cream market was worth about 450 million U.S. dollars in 2016. But is this it?
Co-founder of brand consultancy Chlorophyll, Kiran Khalap, in Mumbai, however, said the adverts were not to be blamed. He said, “Our obsession with fair skin didn’t come from HUL or Emami: it’s a deep-seated cultural bias that equates being fair with being superior.”
Fairness has latently equated to power for many, many years. For example, even though there aren’t written records, in Hinduism, it is believed that the Aryans immigrated to India in 1000 BCE and conquered the Dravidians. The “white-skinned” Aryans were hence coined superior, and the “dark-skinned” Dravidians were termed undesirable and inferior. Therefore, the Aryans became a symbol of fame and wealth, forming the upper caste, and the Dravidians were perceived as untouchable or dirty, forming the lower caste. The invasions that followed were also carried out by fair-skinned individuals, i.e., the Mughals, the Persians, the Portuguese, the French, and the British.
During the second half of the 1800s, the legendary Indian painter Raja Ravi Verma was highly influenced by European art brought in by colonization. He primarily painted instances from Hindu mythologies such as the Ramayana and Mahabharta. These paintings were extremely important and respected by the lower castes, as they were denied entry to temples. Therefore they used these paintings in their prayers. In his paintings, he painted the Gods in lighter tones and demons in darker shades to create a juxtaposition between good and evil. Even dark-skinned Hindu Gods like Vishnu, Krishna, and Shiva were painted blue. This bolstered the importance of fairness.
That said, we are in a much better position than we were ten years ago. Actress Priyanka Chopra admitted that she regretted endorsing fairness products. People of color are gaining recognition on global platforms. Celebrities like Bipasha Basu, Ranbir Kapoor, and Kangana Ranuat rejected fairness cream endorsements. A song like “Duniya Sharma Jayegi”, formerly known as “Beyonce Sharma Jayegi” was called out for its blatant racism. We are trying to embrace our truest selves, from our epidermis to our hearts. We are finally fighting this battle that was started eons ago. If we continue to do so, posterity will look back at this stage and go, “Can you believe how consumed people were with fairness? How dumb!”
Written by: Samiksha