Not fair, but still lovely – is India actually changing its ‘fairness’ narrative?

With the #BlackLivesMatter initiative gaining momentum across the world, brands advertising fair skin have come into sharp focus. HerStory examines India’s deep-rooted obsession for fair skin and whether HUL’s decision to remove ‘Fair’ from its Fair & Lovely cream’s name will change the narrative.

Late last month, multinational giant Hindustan Unilever Limited announced that it would rebrand its best-selling skin-lightening cream, Fair & Lovely, and start by removing the words “fair/fairness”, “white/whitening”, and “light/lightening” from its brand packaging.

The move may have come many decades too late, and after feeding into the innate stereotypes of millions of Indians - equating fair skin with beauty and black with ugly. and also earning a whopping Rs 4,100 crore annually from the sales of Fair & Lovely alone.

This action came after severe backlash of products propagating colourism and took off from the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota in May. The incident sparked world-wide protests and debates on stereotyping based on colour of skin.

In the aftermath, Johnson & Johnson, which owns some of the world’s top consumer brands, immediately announced that it would discontinue two lines of skincare products that referred to “fairness” on its labels. L’Oreal followed suit last week, and said it would drop words such as white, fair, and light from all its skincare products, a day after the Unilever announcement.

Kolkata-based FMCG firm Emami, which owns fairness cream brand Fair & Handsome, had also said it was evaluating the current situation.

While fairness creams may be one part of the problem, the obsession with fair skin in India is deep rooted. HerStory explores the mindsets and stereotypes, and also examines the changing narrative as women are becoming increasingly conscious of body positivity.

Not-so-fair mindsets

As a culture obsessed with fair skin, women in India have always been classified by the different shades of their skin – fair, dark, dusky, and the obnoxious “wheatish”.

It starts with grandma’s home-made remedies earmarked for fair skin, graduates to bullying on the basis of colour as the girl grows up, and then moves on to the matrimonial ad, written by her family according to her skin tone.

26, Brahmin, IIT-IIM, Mumbai-based MNC, very fair…

When the woman becomes pregnant, she is given milk laced with saffron so that her child is fair, as creamy looking as the milk she drank, paal-pol vella (white as milk), as they say in Tamil.

If it’s a man, he has options to choose his bride from different skin tones, the operative word, of course, being “fair & lovely”, as the ad propagates.

This obsession with fair skin, the stereotypes surrounding it, and the inculcation of low self-esteem that comes from constant comparisons with “fair” people has led to colourism not only in India but also all over the world.

This prompted 20-four-year-old Shobia Ooruthirapathy, a Tamil-Canadian make-up artist based in Toronto, Canada, to start a petition against Fair & Lovely by writing a letter to the CEO of HUL.

She told HerStory, “Growing up, I would always be told not to spend a lot of time outside, to use whitening creams, and how I wouldn’t get opportunities due to my skin color. Colourism is an issue in the Western world too due to many of our parents being immigrants from South Asian countries. I remember looking at the ads and products as a child and feeling the need to use them to feel beautiful. I tried two-three fairness creams and the last one I used actually bleached my face. The pressure of fair skin caused me to be insecure for a very long time until I learned to embrace myself for who I am.

“I am very pleased to know that Unilever decided to rebrand Fair & Lovely for the first time after 45 years of production. It is the first step in the right direction and I believe in marketing and advertising, women of all colour should be equal.

"I believe since the leading skin whitening brand is making this change, it will slowly spread the message and hopefully change the mindset of many that believe being fair is the way to life. I believe colourism is an issue that needs to be addressed more by media so they (the public) understand the reason why corporates are making such changes,” she added.

The fault in our stars

Irony died a slow death when many celebrities in India came out against colourism, while endorsing fairness creams themselves. A-list stars like Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Disha Patani, and Sonam Kapoor took to social media to express their outrage and support to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Their efforts may have been laudable but were in fact laughable as they endorsed fairness creams in their own country. They did not realise that millions of Indians looked up to them, and wanted to use the creams they endorsed, to be “fair” like them.

Clinical psychologist Radhika Bapat says the concept of fair skin is ingrained at a very young age along with sexualisation of identities.

“This occurs when one of these conditions is met (a) a person’s value comes only from their sex appeal (b) They are held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness with being sexy (c) They are sexually objectified (d) Sexuality is inappropriately imposed on them. The single most powerful contribution to the formation of this identity is via mass media, especially popular children's programmes - and toys. Children as young as five years old are aware of an ‘inferior dark/coloured’ and ‘superior white’status. The sexualisation of size, shape, colour are therefore absorbed and internalised by young children. As we grow up, they only become more and more ingrained into your psyche. Advertisements promoted by our role models contribute to this problem, leading to body dissatisfaction, depression, and lower self-esteem.”

 Add to these, words like kaalu, kali, and karippi, denoting the term black, are bandied about in movies and TV shows. Makeover shows also carry this forward, making it a vicious cycle.

Shraddha Gurung, beauty vlogger and influencer with 107k followers on Instagram says,

"I don't understand the concept of judging someone based on skin colour because it is completely biological. I have been a critic of a brand like Fair & Lovely. Even today, removal of the word 'Fair' was necessary but not something to be celebrated. This should have been done a long time ago."

Kabbyashree Dasgupta, 23, an author and student of advertising and marketing communication, at Xavier’s Institute of Communication, Mumbai, says Fair & Lovely has been a major culprit.

“The concept of fairness was introduced to me by Fair & Lovely. I remember I was seven or eight years old and those TV advertisements mesmerised me. I was so fascinated by the colour and ended up feeling bad about my own. My mother is very fair and my father has brownish-wheatish complexion, and I took after my father.

“Whenever I used to get a tan in childhood, I would think, ‘Why am I so brown, why am I so dark?’ And I used to curse my fate and used to fight with my mother saying “why didn’t you give me your skin colour? Today, I have evolved – I love and adore my skin colour. It has been a journey of unlearning the things I had learnt…how fairness is imposed on us and how, over the years, parents, mothers, and aunts had taught us home remedies to lighten skin complexion,” Kabbyashree says.

Migmar Lhamo (23) remembers being called a ‘black woman” and ‘kaali maa’ in school and she would retort that black was beautiful and that she “didn’t care two hoots about what others said”.

Shreya Kothari (27), Founder of Verthbox, a sustainable products subscription service, feels that society has deemed it okay to call a person kaali without thinking of the ramifications, especially the feeling of not fitting in or wanted.

“I have known friends whose families have tortured them when it came to weddings saying, ‘Yeh treatment lelo, ye photos mat dalo, etc. (Take this fairness treatment, use light-coloured photos)’!

Kathleen Matthew, a 22-year-old medical student from Mumbai, says she has always been at the end of name calling.

“When I was, one of my uncles told my parents, ‘Ayyo, your daughter is dark, black’. In school and college as well, there were people calling me ‘aye dark’ or ‘blacky’ because of my dark skin. 

“After I shifted to Canada, because I was dark and an Indian, people used to racially discriminate and sort of bully me. Even my ex-boyfriend used to be like, ‘you’re so dark, or it’s night, so now I can’t see you’.”

Now, with MNCs altering the branding narrative, things may change.

Jessica Joseph, a second year BSc student at St John’s Medical College, believes that though rebranding may not solve the whole issue, it’s a good start.

The changing narrative

Increasing awareness on colourism and #TheBlackLivesMatter movement is changing the narrative, albeit slowly.

Many celebrities are now taking a stand and making their opinions public. They are also turning down lucrative endorsements of fairness brands.

Nandita Das, an unconventional actor in a fairness-obsessed Indian film industry, said that while the name change may seem ‘superficial’, it is a step in the right direction. The actor has always been vociferous about discrimination on the basis of colour.

Taapsee Pannu pulled out of an event propagating women’s rights after she realised it was been sponsored by a fairness cream brand. Kalki Koechlin and South star Sai Pallavi also turned down fairness cream ads.

Actor Tannishtha Chatterjee also called out the show, Comedy Nights Bachao, where she was roasted for her skin tone.

Singer Sona Mohapatra has also repeatedly spoken against consumerism on the basis of colour and her own experiences of working with a leading FMCG brand.

Popular standup comic Vir Das also shared a clip from one of his acts where he says that India’s bias towards fair skin cannot be blamed on British colonialism. “Fair and Lovely is basically racism in YouTube,” he says.

Popular matrimonial website has also removed its skin tone filter following an online backlash led by three women from different parts of the world - Meghan Nagpal from Toronto, Hetal Lakhani from Dallas, and Roshni Patel from New York.

Towards body positivity

 Radhika Bapat believes that since body image is often linked to self-esteem, the need to cultivate body positivity becomes paramount.

“At a very early age, parents need to model appropriate behaviours for their children. If parents themselves are dictated by social messages that promote certain ‘standards’ of beauty and if their conversations at home, at parties, and at weddings are dominated by ‘How much weight you have lost/gained?’, then they are been poor role models and they will transmit their attitudes and beliefs to their young children. Media needs to filter out ‘before-after’ messages or parents must become gatekeepers of their childrens access to sexualised media. Schools need to promote programmes that allow children (and adults) to value more than just an outward physical appearance and celebrate differences,” she says.

India’s obsession with “fairness” may not disappear completely, but the movement against colourism is fast gaining ground. However, this can sustain only if education starts at the grassroots level that “it doesn’t matter whether you are black or white”.

(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)





Updates from around the world