The 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.