Fair and Un-lovely: How ads perpetuate the “Fairness = Beauty” myth
The Indian obsession with fairness has been in existence for generations, and has withstood the tide of Hollywood Tanorexia, which has been sweeping the West. While the West hankers after bronzed skin, we choose to equate fair skin with good looks, thereby ensuring the growth of a booming industry, which continues to market fairness products with the age-old promise; lighten your skin tone and the world will be yours for the taking.
The Indian market took the mantra of “Fair = Beautiful” very seriously, and in 1978, launched the now-iconic fairness oriented range of creams and lotions, marketed by a well known FMCG company which promised the consumer not only alabaster skin, but also promised an instantaneous domino-effect, i.e. success, professional growth, popularity, love and even stardom. In other words, dark or dusky complexions represented unhappiness, low self-confidence and no hope for the future. Fair skin on the other hand, represented the Indian equivalent of the great American Dream.
Most of the ads for this brand of cream feature young women with initially-dusky skin tones, and fathers with perpetually worried expressions on their faces. The women aspire to be actresses and air hostesses, but are unable to muster up the confidence to follow their dreams. On cue, their fathers walk in with a tube of the cream in their hands, and gently encourage their dusky daughters to try it. Just a dab of this magical elixir transforms these otherwise nervous young women into beautiful, alabaster swans, all of whom achieve their dreams and are applauded for being fair, and therefore successful. Actress Genelia D’Souza is known for a 2003 ad for this cream where she portrays the role of an aspiring cricket commentator whose audition video is widely appreciated after she uses the cream.
The means by which to market the “dream” to an audience is not lost on advertisement companies which use the unfailing combination of Bollywood stars and fairytale stories in order to appeal to their needs. 2008 saw the launch of the famous “7 Days to Love” campaign, featuring a dusky-skinned Priyanka Chopra along with actors Saif Ali Khan and Neha Dhupia in a 5-part mini-movie series titled “Kabhi Kabhi Pyar Mein”. The story presented is simple; Priyanka and Saif are in love, but her “wheatish” complexion prevents them from getting together, which is why he is with Neha. However, the love story concludes in typical Bollywood fashion after Priyanka uses the magical cream and lightens her problematic skin tone.
The relationship between Bollywood and the fairness cream industry has been successful and lucrative for both parties, and nowhere else is the need to be fair-skinned [and therefore beautiful] more aggressively portrayed and effectively marketed, than in advertisements which feature Bollywood stars peddling a variety of fairness, or skin-lightening creams and soaps. One would imagine that the need for fair skin begins and ends with women’s faces, but that barrier has been broken, with some controversial results.
Apparently, a fair face is no longer good enough to ensure that rapid domino effect of success, love and money. Another well known brand has launched a body lotion which promises to “match” one’s body skin tone to one’s facial skin tone, thereby “increasing confidence”, whereas a new onslaught of fairness cream for men, featuring the likes of Shah Rukh Khan, Shahid Kapur and John Abraham, urge young men to avoid “ladkiyon waali cream” [cream meant for girls], and use customized man-friendly cream instead. Of course, as per script, the young tennis player wins an award after having successfully lightened her skin tone, while the erstwhile unlucky-in-love dusky Romeo finally acquires his Juliet after a few dabs of skin lightening cream.
In 2012, an advertisement for "intimate wash” raised hackles and caused controversy which led to its being banned by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The advertisement featured a woman who is being ignored by her husband owing to her intimate areas being dark. She lightens the offending area with the help of the wash, resulting in her husband flirting with her and resolving communication.
All's fair in love and advertising, and while it is true that most fairness cream ads perpetuate myths about beauty, and use influential media icons to promote their products, the Indian love for fair skin stretches back to a time when mass-manufactured lotions and potions were not available, and instead, people used natural products such as sandlewood, lemon, milk and potato juice to lighten their skin, all in the hope of better prospects. The Bengali words for fair and dusky/dark take the offensive quotient to a new high; the Bengali word for “Fair” is “poreeshkaar” which means “Clean”, whereas the Bengali word for dark/dusky is “moyla”, which means “dirty”. Matrimonial ads demand that a girl be “fair-skinned”, an attribute which is as high priority as her caste!
There appears to be no way to avoid this onslaught of questionable advertising and their potentially-harmful effects on the self-esteem of the more than 70% of Indians who fall into the dusky skin category. Beauty is skin deep, but nobody seems too concerned with what lies beneath one’s skin tone.