Fairness cream advertisements in India almost always have the same format; there is a change only in the context. A woman who is dark-complexioned on the threshold of her dream career, about to meet her date, or being prepped for an arranged marriage. But obviously, there is something holding her back. Yes, you guessed it right – her complexion. Apparently, according to these advertisements, opportunities and approval come knocking only if you are fair.
But sadly, we cannot dismiss this representation as a farce because let’s be honest, many Indians behave convincingly.
Indians have been informed by decades and centuries of Eurocentrism that has equated beauty with fair skin and a slim body. Anything else is tagged as unappealing. And let us not forget the casual sexism that is thrown into all this mess.
Women (especially) go through a phase of ‘becoming more beautiful’ when they reach their twenties. Often this is when their parents are trying to get them married. Thousands of girls, through this process, are told that they are not beautiful enough to please a guy. Allow me to channel my inner Chandler here as I say, can it BE any more sexist?! By the time the official ‘kalyanaprayam’ or appropriate age to get married rolls around, every Malayali girl encounters a phenomenon that is spearheaded by patriarchy: an attempt to make you more beautiful. I’m just kidding! It is really just an attempt to make yourself conform to the patriarchal, racist notions of beauty. Hence there begins the routines of applying turmeric, milk and what not to lighten the shade of their skin. Soon after follows exercise routines and diets aimed at making the to-be bride look slimmer and hence, once again, more beautiful. If the girl is lucky after all these efforts, a family will judge her majorly for her looks and decide in favour of the marriage. Let us also not forget the employers who would rather give the job to a fair, inexperienced person rather than an experienced person who is dark-complexioned. The advertisements that we see expose the problems in our society, only that they use those problems to exploit the inferiority complex created due to the obsession over ‘fair skin’ to increase the profit of their product.
About 60% of women and 10% of men in India use fairness cream. But the skin-whitening industry is not restricted to cosmetics or creams alone. It also includes minor surgeries and other medical treatments. The industry is estimated to be worth about half a billion dollars. Brands like Fair n’ Lovely have Eurocentrism written right over their name and sexism comes into play when they develop a fairness cream for guys called Fair n’ ‘handsome’.
But don’t worry, all is not ‘light and fair’. The Advertising Standards Council of India released a new set of rules that prohibited advertisements from portraying black or dark skin in a negative light. As stated in the ASCI guidelines, ‘Advertising should not communicate any discrimination as a result of skin colour’. To empower us further, we have people like Nandita Das who call out the people who spew this toxicity called colourism, for example, through her video ‘India’s Got Colour’.
Even though we have dark models being made fair for photoshoots, things have started to look better with designers like Sabyasachi embracing models for who they are.
But these are just baby steps as we have a long way to go in terms of acceptance by the general public. So, let us delve into a platform that has a great influence on the people – cinema. Phew! This is going to get us some backlash.
Let us just look into some fine examples that we have in Indian cinema. The whitening that Deepika Padukone has gone through over the course of her career, using Bhumi Pednekar (a fair actor) to portray a dark-complexioned person, Chutki getting a little less of her father’s love and all of her mother’s contempt because of her dark skin in Vivaah – the list is endless. Now, let us look at Malayalam cinema. Nivin Pauly’s character in Action Hero Biju who suddenly transforms from his composed self to being aghast at the insinuation that there is a relationship going on between him and a fat, dark lady. Let us not forget his exact words while describing her – “Ithupole oru sadhanam”. Objectification much? Mollywood filmmakers too have a ‘fairness’ obsession. We have seen fair-complexioned actresses being imported from the North to play Malayali characters when we can boast of a repertoire of fine Malayali actresses. The entry of actresses like Rajisha Vijayan, Nimisha Sajayan and Aparna Balamurali has been a welcome change in this sphere. They don’t conform to the standards of beauty and have delivered some outstanding movies, like Vijayan’s Finals, Sajayan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Balamurali’s Maheshinte Prathikaram. Their characters have been relatable for a large number of Malayali women as such portrayals are closer to life, and thus, more acceptable to the Malayali audience.
We need good (not fair) actors, we need good employees, and we need confident and happy people around us. We need people who have never been told that they are inferior because of the colour of their skin, or anything of the sort for that matter. We must dispose of a mindset that tells them so. White is not beauty. White is not employability. White is not confidence. White is just a colour.