Very few of the women who come to Sonia’s busy beauty parlor in a New Delhi suburb for a bridal makeover say they want to keep their skin tone the same. Most want to look at least two shades fairer.
“I don’t blame them,” says Sonia. “Just look around — film stars, models — most of our beauty icons are fair. We’ve grown up in this culture where fairness is associated with beauty.”
Sonia has a memory common to many Indian women and men — an elderly female relative lamenting the fate of a dusky-complexioned child in the family. “Ladki aur kala” (a girl, and dark) — there could not be a worse fate.
One need not spend long in India to figure out that most people place a premium on fair skin. TV programming is rife with ads for more than one skin-whitening product promising a better match, better career prospects — a better life.
A woman’s face growing progressively whiter stares down from billboards promoting Fair and Lovely. The Hindustan Unilever Limited cosmetic brand has been around since 1978 and is a household name in India.
Hindustan Unilever has a host of other whitening products under Ponds, Lakme and other brands. Indian company Emami Limited introduced its Fair and Handsome skincare brand aimed at male users in 2005.
L’Oreal and other international companies like Oriflame and Avon have entered the Indian market for skin-whitening products estimated to be worth 450 million dollars in 2011 and growing at 15 to 20 percent annually.
Retired school teacher Sharmila Roy has been a loyal user of Fair and Lovely for more than three decades. Has it made her fairer?
“Not really,” she says, but adds that she uses it as a moisturizer as it suits her skin.
Did the advertisements steer Roy to the fairness products? Both say they wanted fairer skin and the advertisements merely told them how to go about it.
“Advertisements are a mirror of society,” says Alan Collaco, general secretary of the Advertising Standards Council of India. But ads promising jobs and husbands to the fair are “ridiculous” and many have been withdrawn after the council stepped in following complaints, he says.
One of the worst ads that Collaco has come across showed a woman failing to attract the attention of her partner, and then getting it after using a cream which claimed to make her genitals fairer. The ad has been pulled, but remains an indication of how deep the prejudice runs.
“Several things have come together in our country to create and reinforce a higher status for fair skin,” says Janaki Abraham, a sociologist at Delhi University.
In the country’s traditional hierarchical caste structure, lighter skin was associated with top-of-the-ladder Bramhins and is still identified with higher status in society. The British colonial era contributed further to the prejudice as fair skin came to be associated with status, Abraham said.
A spokesman for Hindustan Unilever said notions of beauty vary between societies, from lighter tones in Asia to tanned skin in Europe or the United States. But Abraham says the premium on fair skin can’t really be compared to the desire for a tan.
“It is far more insidious, dangerous and there are regimes of racism inherent in the concept,” she says. “There are material consequences of skin color in India: in the family you may get an unequal share of food, clothes, toys as you grow up.”
Delhi-based dermatologist Rashmi Sarkar says most of the whitening products are harmless and function as sunscreens, but the ones with depigmentation agents can be harmful, and there is an urgent need to create awareness about the possible side effects.
“Easily available across the counter, these are not used under medical supervision and prolonged use could lead to problems,” says Sarkar.