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Empowering Indian Women…By Lightening Their Skin

Article published on Jun 5th, 2007 | Comment | Trackback | Categories »

Fair & LovelyThe young Indian woman of the 21st century is more empowered than ever before. And L’Oreal, the Body Shop, Garnier, Ponds, and Jolen are helping them charge ahead even more, all through the magic of skin-lightening creams.

We’ve all heard about Unilever’s Fair & Lovely whitening cream. It promises to take a young woman from paper-bag brown to oatmeal-colored beige, ensuring her career success and a handsome husband. Now the aforementioned cosmetics and skin-care companies are expanding into India by offering their own skin-lightening products.

Being an independent woman is about having choice and control over your life, and these lightening products seem to offer it in the form of choice and control over skin color. Advertisements also carry a “grrrl power” message. Fair & Lovely’s ads traditionally focused on how a dark-skinned woman could find romance by using the cream. Now the focus of the ads has shifted: The product can help a swarthy woman get a traditionally male job, such as cricket match announcer. Talk about being a liberated woman! Who needs a husband when you can be a cricket match announcer?

Yes, there is the controversy about the ideal of light skin, which I blogged about in March with my “Looking Right Is Looking White” post. When it comes to being outraged at the light skin ideal, though, that’s “a very Western Way of looking at the world,” says Ashok Venkatramani of Hindustan Lever, the Indian subsidiary of Unilever. “The definition of beauty in the Western world is linked to anti-aging. In Asia, it’s all about being two shades lighter.”

He has a point. In the United States, we don’t hear about how Botox propagates prejudice against the elderly. For the longest time, we didn’t hear much about how skinny models propagated prejudice against heavy people. Girls just got anorexic instead. White teeth are an ideal. So why not white skin? And if white women can aspire for darker skin by using products such as Coppertone’s sunless tanning lotions, then what’s so wrong with brown women aspiring for lighter skin by using products such as Fair & Lovely? The grass is always greener on the other side.

Of course, as I wrote back in March, Coppertone doesn’t market its product by saying that white women need it to land a good husband or a good job. And in the Western world, being pale doesn’t carry anywhere near the social burden that being dark does in India.

In a capitalist world, businesses provide what consumers want, so there’s no point in getting mad at the companies that produce these skin-lightening products. If you want to change the fair-skinned ideal, you’ve got to change societal attitudes, which of course is no easy task. And Fair & Lovely certainly showed that it can change with the times when it shifted its ads’ focus from success in romance to success in a career.

Ironically, Unilever not only makes Fair & Lovely, but it also makes Dove products and promotes them in the Western world with its “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which encourages women to celebrate their curves. So while it tells women in the West to accept their bodies as they are, it tells women in India to, basically, be white. It’s hypocrisy, but it’s also a response to two distinct sets of consumer aspirations.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Ebony magazine, which targets the African-American market, used to carry ads for skin whitening creams. Today, it no longer does. Similarly, fair skin may empower Indian women today. Let’s just hope it’s not needed for empowerment tomorrow.



June 10th, 2007, 22:37:56

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July 11th, 2007, 16:07:35

I am really proud of you for writing this blog. India really has a long way to go if the majority of its people still believe that being ‘fairness’ will empower them (this is not just limited to women). You are, of course right, Unilever will only continue to produce such ads and products because there is a DEMAND in the consumer market. India is a capitalistic society, if there is money to be made, someone will be up for it.

As an Indian, I really hope India will learn that having a certain skin color does not mean success. The fact that this product has gained popularity tells me there is a definite need for education within the populace. I am also quite stunned at the value Indian people place on skin color. Oh yes, it may be attractive to the eyes of the beholder but please remember it does not guarantee success. Bluntly put, I am sorry to say this but India is a ‘racist’ society…take a look at their movies..no major actor or actress is dark-skinned, all are ‘fair’. It will take a long time for me before India earns my respect because it does not treat its people with equality (or at least make an effort to).

If anyone feels offended by my comments on India, I apologize and please write your thoughts. However, let’s not turn this blog into a place where we rant at each other;)..there are many places on the internet where that’s already been done and it just plainly disgusts me!

August 28th, 2007, 03:02:17
Lovely and Dark

Well, I am a dark indian woman and proud of my heritage. In the US, I am not as discriminated as I would be in India. I have no problem attracting men here when I was single. I am now married to a non-Indian man but at least he is not shallow enough to judge beauty by skin color alone. I will also make comments about India and if it offends someone, its either they are living in their own dream world and blissfully unaware of reality.

I have been discriminated by other Indians for marrying a black American man. These people complain about racism but they have the same attitudes towards others. Can we say hypocrisy?

Interesting post. I think it is that Indians in general are not confident in themselves. I am seeing many insecure people. Insecurity is very related to ‘racism’ because in order to elevate yourself you have to put another group down. Some of the fair and lovely commercials are insulting.

I live in the US and here many women dye their hair blond. Blond hair is more desirable. However, a brunette girl is not teased or put down for not being blond. “And in the Western world, being pale doesn’t carry anywhere near the social burden that being dark does in India.” I very much agree with that. As a child going to school in India, I have seen kids make fun of a darker kid for being black and dark. So, we think kids are kids but a teacher also went along with that and commented on dark skin. That poor kid!

And growing up, I had aunties fuss over me becoming darker after playing outside. Recently, I went to a wedding and I heard the shallowest comments like “he didnt graduate from college” AND “she’s too dark”
I thought what nonsense is this. Who cares? Two people are in love and getting married, I thought the bride looked lovely and yes she had dark Indian skin.

September 3rd, 2007, 05:59:33
Armand Rousso

Beauty differ from one culture to another ,however, ads and mass media have a great impact to change the cultural conception of one social group to benefit from one respectful proportion of one presented product in other word,color brings success and this is what we are seeing in most of the films and t v presenters . Fair & Lovely is a famous product and it stands for ameliorating their consumers not in India but also in all over the world- notably in the Arab countries .We believe in your products as an effective one in the world but we would like also to be objective and respectful to one minority group .

Armand Rousso

September 25th, 2007, 11:57:02

I am so glad that you got the guts to say the truth. As an Indian myself, I have seen this “fair ‘n lovely” commercial so many times on my parent’s satellite channels.. it is ridiculous!! My mom is very light skinned and my father is a bit on the dark side, so I came out to be in the middle somewhere, I guess. I know my mom always makes good comments on girls that are lighter skinned Indians that she sees on TV. I’m proud of my skin tone and I hope that these girls in India or anywhere don’t buy into this ridiculous notion of getting lighter to get good husbands and a good job!! Just typing that in sounds lame! If they are marrying you for your light skin tone..well then honey, you better pray that the sun don’t shine on you! People need to start accepting people for who they are and the whole package!

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