Tanushree K, 30, began using Fair & Lovely when she was only 13-years-old, and when she had heard enough of deprecating remarks like — ‘features achche hain par rang daba hua hai (physical features are good but the skin tone is dark)’ to ‘kaali kaluti (dark-skinned).
“I was bullied a lot in my school in Allahabad, and I remember applying the fairness cream on my face religiously during summer vacations, hoping I would startle my classmates by turning fair when I go back to school,” laughs Tanushree, a public relations professional, as she relates that she stopped using the cream by the time she had turned 20. “That was a conscious decision. I had developed huge self-esteem and body issues. And it took me my entire 20s to come to terms with that.”
In India, colourism has much to do with internalisation of the colonial preference for light skin and also, arguably, with its own caste system. In the contemporary world, the visual media, including advertising and films, have been largely blamed for reaffirming the skin stereotype. In fact, discrimination over dark skin is a reality that some take in their stride bravely while some look for ways out — one of which is resorting to fairness creams.
Mathangi Badrinathan, 33, said she also started “really young”. “Fairness creams came my way when I was really young as I was made fun of because of my complexion back in school. These silly advertisements made me think that these whitening creams would lighten my skin,” said the Bengaluru-based homemaker, who grew up mostly in the northern parts of the country, where, she said, colour bias is more pronounced than in South India where she is from.
Apart from school and friends, the prejudiced conversations and social conditioning mostly begin at home, with suggestions of home remedies for skin lightening among other things. As it happens, even before a dark-skinned person is exposed to discriminatory behaviour outside home, a sense of inferiority is already ingrained in their minds.
Mathangi recalls how some of her very close relatives used to say that she looked out of place amid other fair-complexioned girls in the family. “I was often told go for lighter shades of clothes. Or to put some makeup or powder, or apply a facepack,” she says.
Amrita Chakraborty, 30, who currently lives in Delaware, US, too, used skin-whitening creams while in school. “I was called ‘kaak‘ or crow in jest by my school friends in Kolkata. I never really felt bad but then I should have stopped them. In hindsight, I realise why I had a lot of insecurities growing up. It is more about how our society conditions us. I have used fairness creams when I was in school, mostly because I was naive and oblivious to the fact that it’s a fool’s errand. I just wanted people to see me differently.”
For the uninitiated, while fairness creams and skin brightening cosmetic products have long existed, it is the brand recall of Fair & Lovely and their ads that have been called out for largely selling the narrative that a dark-skinned woman can prosper and do better if she becomes ‘fair’ and therefore, ‘desirable’.
After facing backlash, a marriage website (shaadi.com), too, recently dropped the skin tone filter wherein it asked users to select their skin tones while registering. These developments in the country have followed the strong anti-racism protests that started in the United States over the killing of an African-American, George Floyd. The protests spread outside the country, triggering reviews of colour biases at many places.
“Woh dikhaate hai na ki aap bahut acchha kar sakte ho agar aap gore hote ho toh…isliye, maine bhi use kiya, karti hun. (The ads show that you can do wonders if you are fair-skinned. I started using the cream due to that, I still use it,” said Sushila Devi, 55, a househelp in New Delhi.
For Amrita, fortunately, her dark has not been an impediment in her career unlike what they try to portray in advertisements. “I haven’t felt any discrimination, but maybe that is because we internalise certain prejudices without realising them. I cannot remember facing any discrimination on the work front ever. At least not because of my colour, because of my gender, yes, but that is a different conversation,” the homemaker said.
“Being commented on one’s skin tone could be shattering for self-esteem. It leads to self-doubt and under confidence. Furthermore, at a deeper level it could affect the person’s perception of self-love,” said Vidhi Agarwal, a psychotherapist and professional school counselor in Mumbai.
Significantly, the dark-skin taboo cuts across gender barriers. Farhan (name changed), a 32-year-old professional in the tourism sector, Delhi, for instance, became conscious of his skin colour while being compared to his siblings.
“When people started comparing me with my siblings, I began getting conscious about my skin colour. They are all fair. Well, honestly I started using whitening cream just to retain the natural colour of my skin, not really for fairness. I believe these whitening creams are surely not going to lighten up my skin tone but they have not made my skin worse either,” he said.
Suman Pramanik, a 31-year-old social worker from Delhi, went for whitening cream and skin-colour brightening soap as he has “good-looking” friends. “I wanted to fit in so that my friends do not feel uncomfortable with my skin colour. Secondly, may be because I wanted others to notice me. Let’s be real, people with fair skin tend to get all the limelight, be it in movies or magazine covers, or in real life. When you are dark-skinned, putting on makeup gives you a sense of belonging and boosts confidence.”
There have been some conversations around the taboo in recent years, including by celebrities. One is reminded of a video campaign called India’s Got Colour by Nandita Das and other female Bollywood celebrities to address stereotypes around skin colour.
Interestingly enough, Tanushree suspects “over-fetishization” of dark skin in the name of inclusive body positivity movements. “I have also seen over-fetishization of dark skin in the last few years. I have recently started modelling and so many photographers approached me after being enamoured of my skin colour. Or because it will look good in certain kinds of photos while all we want is acceptance, and to be treated equal and not be fetishized,” she remarked.
Do such products work?
Do these creams actually lighten skin? Dr Rajat Kandhari, consultant dermatologist, Dr Kandhari’s Skin & Dental Clinic, New Delhi, told indianexpress.com about how “unsupervised use” leads to many side-effects. “Skin lightening agents can be in the form of hydroquinone (drug) and many cosmeceuticals agents such as Kojic acid, azealic acid, glycolic acid and many more hitting the market every day. They work by inhibiting the melanin production by the colour producing cell of the skin called a melanocyte. Many of these creams come with steroids in them, which further lead to a sensitive skin. If at all some of these creams are to be used, one must consult a doctor before doing so.”
Even if they could work to lighten pigment in case of a disorder and can work to brighten the skin, to expect it to be ‘lightened’ by numerous shades is being over-ambitious, said Dr Kandhari.
Twenty five-year-old Anju Konai said she was suggested by many to put “some” fairness cream to improve her complexion, which, she later found out, were harming her skin. “I was made fun of by strangers. I was suggested by many friends to put some of these creams and so I used them for at least three years,” said the Mumbai-based BEd student.
“Whenever I used to step out in the sun, my skin would get burnt and become darker. Later, I switched to better products but not fairness ones. As I know nothing can make me change my skin colour without harming it,” Anju added.
Gitanjali Iyer, a 25-year-old communications student currently living in Melbourne, was also uncomfortable with her skin colour initially but she took to the web to educate herself about the harmful impact of skin whitening creams. “Having the access to internet and researching and unlearning the stigma around skin colours has helped me realise that these industries just prey on insecurity and existing divides,” she said.
Similar was the case with 28-year-old Harshita Pande who started using such creams when she was as young as seven years until her parents dissuaded her. “My aunties heavily relied on Fair & Lovely. They even asked me. Back then, I was also fascinated by this whole fair-complexion-notion. And, I did use the cream for a good few years. I eventually stopped with my parents explaining me again and again that colour does not matter,” said the Delhi-based communications specialist.
How do people see dropping the word ‘fair’?
Recently, Bollywood actors like Priyanka Chopra and Sonam Kapoor who expressed their support for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign received brickbats for endorsing ‘fairness’ and ‘skin brightening creams’. In the garb of backdoor entry terms like ‘skin brightening’ and ‘spot-reducing’ products, they will continue to enjoy a market, many feel, considering the conditioning and “obsession with fair skin penetrates deep”.
“It is not going to change much, at least not immediately. The belief that fair is beautiful is deep inside people’s minds. There is still time for people to understand what the word beautiful really means. Don’t know if I should say this, but it is the Indian mindset that is really tough to change,” says Mathangi.
Harshita feels “people who have been using fairness products will still be buying it”. “There is this fear of rejection by society. However, she sees the current wave of brands dropping such usages as a time to introspect. “The fairness cream companies should consciously take the initiative to educate the masses as they have created quite an impact over the years. This is the time for them to not only change the name but change the game and the rules as well,” she said.
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