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My Beautiful White Skin (Part 2: Is Fair Lovely?)

My Beautiful White Skin (Part 2: Is Fair Lovely?)

February 03, 2011

Skin-lightening creams advertise 'Total Fairness' - or is that 'blatant exploitation'?

The longer I stay in India, the more often I seem to come across cases of skin colour being an issue. Specifically, darker-skinned people have it bad. In matrimonial classifieds, ‘complexion: dusky’ is often a deal-breaker. Parents-to-be hope that the newborn will be get the benefit of the fairer parent’s genes. A friend used to teach at a school nearby, and on a few occasions heard girls of darker complexion being bullied and insulted by other students, even at a young age. In spite of all this, skin colour is apparently less of an issue here in Kerala than it is in most other Indian states. In other words, I'm barely seeing the tip of the iceberg.

As I suggested in part 1, the disadvantages of having dark skin are entirely cultural. The relevant cultural factors could be ancient, like caste and untouchability, or modern, like job and marriage market prospects, or a combination of both. Physicality isn’t in question: light skin doesn’t make you run faster, jump higher or think better. But sometimes, cultural and social pressures are more vivid and powerful than a physical disadvantage could ever be.

Enter big business. Cosmetics. Fair is Lovely. Fair is Handsome. It must be true: these words fit together so cosily on those little boxes of cream you can buy at Big Bazaar or your local pharmacy. On the Wall Street Journal site, Rupa Subramanya advocates freedom of choice in an open marketplace. While I feel she makes some tenuous connections, her basic point is quite true: you can’t blame the industry for wanting to cash in on a cultural trend. They are simply exploiting a market that is already there, bringing to the surface opinions and beliefs that are usually left bubbling under.

What you can blame them for, however, is the way they sell these products. I’d never actually watched skin-lightening cream advertisements before, let alone closely, but a quick scan on YouTube was at best eye-opening and at worst utterly horrifying. Here’s a quick rundown, with my initially crude responses toned down a bit:

-An ultra-slick presentation in which a man, previously quite naturally good-looking according to the hundreds of comments below the video, becomes bizarrely pale in order to become the new go-to model for a TV commercial. Lots of slow-motion, quick cuts and flashes of light. Lighter skin makes you cool and successful.

-She can’t get a contract because she’s dark. “Modern beauty company hai,” says the ghostly, uppity woman at reception. But wait! Look at all the Joy from the Earth in this magical ayurvedic skin product!  And the end result? Same as the other one: she gets to be on TV!

-A young woman circles an ad in the paper, then curses herself in front of the mirror. “Air hostess?!” she cries in disbelief. But with 4 simple steps, and an accompanying series of hits on a bass drum, Fair & Lovely gets her the job - and approval from her parents. Frightening.

-An ad from Pakistan, just to get some international perspective. Oh, wait - it’s absolutely identical. Shouting at the mirror, a magical sparkling product to overcome nature, ultimate goal of a TV audition... hang on, is TV the only reason to bleach your skin?

-And finally one from the Middle East. Can you guess? Correct - she CAN’T GET A JOB ON TV. “The obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin,” just in case you didn’t already get it. “For total fairness,” intones a friendly announcer. That’s ironic.

In my view, these advertisements are so offensive that any advantage of using the products in question is cancelled out. There’s such a thing as a free marketplace, and then there’s blatant, cynical exploitation of an increasingly unacceptable element in society.

My opinion here isn’t so relevant, though. What do you think? Before we get to comments, I’ll let Jamaica-based blogger Annie Paul have the last word: “bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole/Patois, if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools.”


  • Bhadra
    22.02.12 05:38 PM
    Most of the men staring in those ads are so much more handsome with dark skin :)
    I think it's distasteful. When old, fat aunties bemoan my dark skin, I think to myself, "I'm still far prettier than your daughters could ever be".
  • free_verse
    08.02.11 12:47 PM
    While the cultural preference for 'fair' skin may exist (though somehow, as a 24 yr old girl in Delhi, I have personally never witnessed it), and the market cannot be blamed for exploiting this, I truly feel that companies promoting their products through such distasteful advertising has served to REINFORCE and ENTRENCH a phenomenon that may have died down with the passage of time in an increasing merit-based society. When one's dormant fears are ceaseless reflected in and harped upon in the media for decades, how will they ever allowed to be overcome?

    Frankly, in addition to companies who only care about selling their products, I also blame the media icons (read film stars and TV stars) of this country, most of whom (barring some notable exceptions) have never learned to be comfortable in their own (dark) skin. With such 'icons', who needs enemies?
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    05.02.11 09:57 AM
    Thanks everybody! As far as I'm concerned, it's never a bad time to take notice of the ridiculous and/or exploitative nature of certain advertisements.
  • Simply Ridiculous
    Simply Ridiculous
    05.02.11 05:44 AM
    Hmmm.. Interesting!!
  • drpratibha
    04.02.11 06:16 PM
    interesting take on ads.
  • HJ
    03.02.11 12:44 PM
    Woow.. Brilliant one Morris. I loved reading it.

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