As Hindustan Lever embraces ‘& Lovely’ and abandons its unfair persuasion to many generations of Indians to grow ‘lighter’, the glamour industry is taking stock of its implications.
The flood of commentary speaks volumes of the stranglehold skin tone has had on the commerce around beautiful and desirable, blighting a nation of immense colour diversity.
What’s the problem?
‘Colourism’, as the practice in the glamour world is also known as, is perhaps the most visible form of racism in the subcontinent.
Published matrimonial ads routinely signal fair and wheatish complexioned as human shade cards. ‘Fair & Lovely’, in its decades of existence, had regularly advertised an association of fairness with a marriage, a job as an airhostess, and even as a doctor.
‘Kaalu’ is a routinely accepted monicker. Popular film songs over the decades have made a reference to ‘gori‘, or the fair one, as the girl of choice. Even with men, blackface Mehmood in ‘hum kaale hain to kya hua dilwaale hain‘, invites people to ‘look beyond’ the colour of his skin.
In a country of largely various shades of brown and black, skin tone decides roles – and if at all you can be an actor. India’s top star Shah Rukh Khan too thought nothing of advertising for a fairness cream. The ‘bai’ or ‘kaamwaali’ in cinema and on TV shows is often marked out from the heroine by way of skin-tone signalling. Even for atmosphere artists or dancers in group film songs, a clear preference for white skin is visible in the market for Central Asian stars that flourishes in film city.
Anchors of almost all news channels are flat white with the pancake and lighting. Photoshopping of glamour magazine covers of even stars to make them whiter has only deepened the acceptance of strong white preferences.
So why might Fair & Lovely have abandoned ‘fair’?
Model Nayanika Chatterjee, dusky, confident and successful, is happy that the product’s name has now changed, but remains cautious about assuming a change of heart on the part of the company.
“In the light of Black Lives Matter, look at what is happening. This may have been done to avoid a court case and being sued. Opinion has swung dramatically now, and there is anger. After all, when they launched the product and it was there for decades, it was response to customer sentiment and the market that drove them. It may be similar thinking now too.”
Nina Davuluri, the New York-based actor, producer, the first woman of Asian descent to win the Miss America title in 2014, and creator of a docuseries called COMPLEXion, had written an open letter to Alan Hope at Unilever on June 23, calling upon him to take back skin lightening products. Davuluri spoke from her personal experience – after being crowned Miss America, articles were published that asked “if Miss America was too dark to ever be Miss India?”
She told The Indian Express: “This is a big win, but it’s only the beginning. While Unilever removing words such as “fair, white, & lightening,” and changing the Fair & Lovely brand name is a step towards inclusion, it’s only one piece of a much larger fight to end colourism (still awaiting L’Oréal & Procter & Gamble). We can’t forget that there are many groups of people that have benefited immensely off this archaic notion of colourism. Groups such as the entertainment (Bollywood) industry, media conglomerates, and companies producing whitening products have poured billions of dollars into creating a very false, hierarchical, and racist image: that fair skin is the only type of worthy skin.”
So has nothing changed in India over the years?
Nonita Kalra, Editor, Harper’s Bazar, is clear that there are many Indias at play here.
“In the world of urban women, in perhaps the top 2%, there has been a massive shift and an embrace of diversity and acceptance of body colour and shapes. For instance, there is a modelling agency called FeatCast who will never use “fair and lovely models”. A designer like Sanjay Garg would never cast the stereotype. And internationally, stars like Jameela Jamil make this their primary cause. In fact the day Bazaar India was shooting Ms Jamil for its cover, she celebrated her cellulite on Instagram.
“There are handles where they actually highlight this reality and decorate cellulite with glitter. Even the fact that we have embraced the trend of normcore in fashion means that we are rejecting the constructs of tight clothing. We are comfortable in our bodies and our clothing must do the same. (Normcore being a portmanteau of ‘normal’ and ‘hardcore’).”
And will changing of this name matter?
Actor Nandita Das, an active voice campaigning against racism in the world of the performing arts, welcomes abandoning the ‘Fair’ in Fair & Lovely, but says: “The fact it took so long for even a global company to stop spending crores on advertising on the absurd message of fair IS lovely should tell us how much longer it will take it to defeat the notion.
“Today is not the day to complain about that. Better late than never for HUL. While brands can only use the existing prejudice to their advantage, changing the narrative will spark the much needed conversation around the issue of colourism.”
Davuluri is more circumspect; “This image has trickled down and seeped into the mindsets of people so much that the majority still believes that ‘fair skin’ is the ideal. The majority don’t realise that they’re buying into an ideology that directly feeds their own oppression. The majority doesn’t stop to ask, “Why?” Ultimately, unless companies, the media, and entertainment industries take an active approach to dismantle the very core beliefs that they themselves have built, we cannot break the cycle of colourism.
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“So while this is certainly a step in the right direction, there is much more work to be done. How Unilever executes their rebranding strategy and new advertisement campaigns will be incredibly telling of their true intentions. And how Bollywood reacts to this new era of awakening will be noticed – up until now, their silence has been deafening.”
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