I was shopping for some face cream the other day, and went to a small chemist to pick it up. I asked the man for some face cream, and he looked at me and then pulled out Fair&Lovely – a skin whitening cream. I laughed and told him I had no need for that, and he gave me a different one. A fairly innocuous event you would think, but after being amongst the advertising in this country for a few months, I don’t think so.
India has an obsession with fair skin, one that I struggle to understand. At home women spend lots of money on bronzing products, and one in three Australians develops skin cancer from being in the sun too much, trying to tan.
India is the opposite: Ads on TV are full of very fair skinned women selling products designed to lighten your skin. Fair & Lovely is only the tip of the iceberg. International brands have developed specific products for the Indian market: Garnier, Loreal, Clinique, Ponds and Revlon have multiple products designed to lighten complexion. From face creams to face washes, even lotions for baby’s skin. Recently there has been controversy surrounding the release of an intimate wash for women, promising to whiten ‘down there’ (read what Vice had to say about it).
India’s cosmetic industry is set to grow to 200 Billion Rupees ($3.6Bn) by 2014, so it seems to be worth the while of these companies to continue to develop such products, and to continue to convince Indians that fairer is lovelier. This ‘colourism‘, as Jyothi Gupta points out, is linked closely to the still-present caste bias in Indian society and exploited by advertising and pharmaceutical companies. Heres an interview she conducted with Dr Parameswaran, a Professor at Indiana University (transcript) on colourism:
I really like the point made towards the end of this interview: what is worrying about the focus on fairness in India is the lack of discourse surrounding it. In Australia the same amount of focus is placed on being skinny, and that image is propagated throughout the media. However, this is accompanied by alternate discourse about health and women’s bodies (whether its doing its job or not is another matter). In India there is no alternate discourse about the harm that this image could be doing to young girl’s self-esteem.
Discourse surrounds colourism amongst Latinos and African-Americans in the States, and studies have been conducted on the impact that skin tone has on salary and education of individuals in America. What is interesting about this particular article is that its published in the Indian paper The Hindu, but talks almost solely about colourism in relation to the States. However there doesn’t seem to be much discussion about it within the Indian context.
Here is another article by Nisha Susan from the Indian magazine Tehelka, if you’re interested. She looks at the idealised image of an Indian in the media and Bollywood.
Walking around the streets of Bangalore and Coimbatore makes me wonder where they even find these women on TV selling these products. Because no-one I see on the streets is as fair as these women – on the TV screen they seem to be even whiter than me!
I’m told that these women are found in the North, however I still think that like the promises and image they are selling, they are mythical beasts.
Here’s Obama’s two cents worth: