A dark-skinned person is termed as “Moila” in Bengali - a word whose literal translation is dirty. In today’s article, we delve deeper into Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oréal decision to relook at their skincare portfolio, amid the backlash faced by brands globally for racial overtones of their products.
India has had long-standing and deep-rooted biases against darker skin colour, some of which got accentuated during colonial rule. India’s traditional Ayurveda teaches that pregnant women can improve their foetus’s complexion by drinking saffron-laced milk and eating oranges, fennel seeds and coconut pieces. In Sanskrit, the term 'Asuryasparsh' is used to define he who is untanned, untouched by the sun's heat and is therefore pure and affluent. Systemic prejudices, like caste and class, are closely connected with the colour of one’s skin. We have an aversion for dark - dark is scary, black cats are unlucky, Maa Kaali is the black-skinned goddess of death and destruction, and our darker deities are painted a more “respectable” blue. India is one of the few cultures where a people that is itself predominantly shades of brown places a high premium on having lighter skin.
However, the obsession with fair skin is not something that’s restricted to India. Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colourants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade. People in the African continent have been applying concoctions made of clay, paste from tree barks and minerals with animal fat or oil to make their skin brighter and shinier for a very long time. While treating body surface has deeper roots, the colonial and apartheid-era led to skin colour being linked to race, and hence to social capital and material consequences, thus expanding the market for skin whiteners. With the rise of African nationalism, skin whiteners morphed to be seen as corrupting elements of western consumer culture leading to these products being banned in nations such as South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda. Yet, in Nigeria, 77% of the country’s women use skin-lightening agents today; in Togo, 59%. There is a flourishing black market for skin whiteners in South Africa (for more fascinating titbits, look up “Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners” by Lynn M. Thomas)
The Price of Being Woke
India’s tryst with commercial fairness cream can be traced back to the introduction of “Afghan Snow” by E.S. Patanwala in 1919. It was quite the rage in its time, having been endorsed by Mahatma Gandhi, sponsored India’s first Miss India contest in 1952 and promoted by Bollywood celebrities till early 1970s.
Fair and Lovely was introduced by HUL in 1975, and became an instant success. It raked in Rs 2000 crores in annual sales in 2018-19, one of their most profitable brands in India and accounting for more than half of total ‘skin-lightening’ business in India. An assessment by ‘Research and Markets’ titled "India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview, 2018-2023" suggests that women's fairness cream category will achieve market revenues of more than Rs. 5,000 crore by the year 2023. And apparently this is what customers want - according to a Morgan Stanley report, 46% Indian consumers specify fairness as the most important attribute in skin creams. With such a lucrative market opportunity, why should HUL, Procter & Gamble and L'Oreal care?
Who's the Fairest of Them All?
The brands peddling skin whiteners have come under heavy criticism for some time now, for tapping into a harmful relic of colonial and caste history and ruthlessly exploiting society’s misplaced notion of equating fairness with beauty and power. Their advertisements over the years have consolidated these stereotypes by explicitly suggesting that the dark-skinned will be shunned by society at large and enhanced fairness leads to better matrimonial prospects, greater attention from the opposite gender, improved social confidence, growing self-esteem and superior career choices. And who better to convince the masses than their role models and vanguards of culture - Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor and many more.
The result is terrifying: Millions of insecure dark-skinned youngsters growing up in India, taunted by friends and relatives, being peddled the hope of a solution to their ‘problem’ by a brand that actually perpetuated their insecurity and then profited from it. The dark skin prejudice is most visible in the arranged marriage market. Aside from all marriage ads specifically emphasising the need for a fair woman, Shaadi.com — India’s foremost marriage website — had a filter that allowed people to search for potential partners on the basis of skin colour - from very fair to dusky.
Alas, skin whiteners do not just affect prejudices. Excessive use of creams which contain whitening ingredients such as ammoniated mercury, hydroquinone or topical steroids (which interestingly were earlier prescribed for medical use to treat burn victims) may cause skin damage, permanent discolouration, pigmentation or eczema. Ironically, according to researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), most OTC skin whiteners do not even work.
A Sense of Deja Vu
So here we are, with J&J exiting the skin whitening market, HUL dropping the word “Fair” from the iconic Fair and Lovely and promising to become more “inclusive and diverse” and Shaadi.com withdrawing its skin tone filter after widespread backlash. We have been here before. HUL has been peddling the concept of ‘Real Beauty’ through Dove (which incidentally, was pulled up for racial stereotyping and was forced to withdraw its ad, featuring a Black woman turning into a White woman, and publicly apologise) for some time now. It created ‘Fair & Lovely Foundation’ aimed to empower and enhance the self-esteem of young women in India and removed the two faces mnemonic and the 'shade card' from its packs some time back. They have used every possible synonym for fairness from the thesaurus including lightness, brightness, clear, glow, shine, radiance, and even Hindi words like ‘Nikharapan’ to avoid being penalised by the government.
Does the Indian consumer care? You already know its sales figures. Ask any salon or spa and you will find that skin whitening or brightening treatments are their bestsellers. Pond's talcum powder, which HUL has always promoted for freshness and fragrance, is used by 70% users on their faces to appear whiter.
Through The Glass Darkly
Systemic changes are afoot. The Dark Is Beautiful campaign was launched in 2009 by Kavitha Emmanuel to create awareness on the bias toward lighter skin through forums and workshops. In 2015, a consumer court penalised Emami for their ‘Fair & Handsome’ cream for ‘misleading claims’. UNESCO launched the “India’s Got Colour” campaign in 2019 to fight against colour bias. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare proposed a Rs. 50 lakh penalty and imprisonment upto 5 years for brands endorsing products for fairness of skin, hair loss, improvement of height or obesity, among others in February 2020.
It is the belief and privilege of being fair that needs to be attacked. And brands can play an important part in this. But it would need more than cosmetic changes like removing a filter and renaming a 45-year-old brand with a very strong market positioning. Instead of hollow actions, brands need to act decisively if they really want to insert themselves into cultural narratives like #BlackLivesMatter. Will HUL, P&G and L'Oreal dare discontinue their skin whitening brand? Will they own up to their mistakes and apologise for those offensive ads?