In India, a country where the majority of the population is dark-skinned, there is a widely held belief that dark complexions are inferior to fair ones. This prejudice manifests itself in everything from hiring practices that favor light-skinned employees to matrimonial ads that list fairness as a non-negotiable characteristic of the future bride or groom. In the media, light-skinned actors and models are in high demand, while dark-skinned performers are rarely seen on screen. The message is clear: fair skin represents beauty and success, and as a result Indians are keen consumers of products that promise to lighten skin. (via Can Advertising Change India’s Obsession with Fair Skin? - Elizabeth Segran - The Atlantic)
When I spoke to Nandita Das last week, she argued that India’s history of racism is not central to the discussion, because the prejudice against dark skin has taken on new forms in the modern world. “I don’t believe we have to keep going back into history,” says Das. “We’re not just a product of our traditions: we’re also part of the globalized world. Today, the fact that such discrimination continues to exist is a function of consumerism. The market is waiting to cash in on people’s hidden aspirations.”
For centuries Indians used natural ingredients, such as lemon or turmeric, to lighten their skin. In 1975, Unilever launched a commercial skin lightening cream called “Fair and Lovely,” and other companies quickly followed suit with their own products. The creams were originally targeted at women, but over time products emerged for men as well. In 2005, Emami launched the “Fair and Handsome” cream with Shah Rukh Khan as its brand ambassador and it is now a market leader. Fairness products are sold at every price point, from inexpensive packets of lotion to high-end luxury creams, making them accessible to every socioeconomic class. Today, their sale generates over $400 million in revenue a year in India, which is more than all other skincare products combined. In fact, the sale of fairness productssurpasses the sale of Coca-Cola and tea in India.
"When I am on a film set playing an educated upper-middle-class character, the crew will tell me, ‘I know you don’t like to wear makeup to lighten your skin, but this is an educated girl you are playing, so it would be appropriate for you to look fair,’ But what does that say about me?" Das asks. "I’m educated and I’m dark." It is as if filmmakers cannot wrap their heads around the possibility that dark skin can be associated with success, even when it is embodied for them in the very person with whom they are speaking.
What will it take to change India’s aesthetic sensibilities? There needs to be an alternative stream of messaging in the Indian media that associates dark skin with notions of beauty, strength and success. Activists have tried to do this with campaigns like “Dark is Beautiful,” but they face a herculean task because their efforts are not backed by the advertising budgets of the cosmetics and film industries. The ad featuring Nandita Das has appeared in print and has been shared widely on Facebook and Twitter, but it will never be as visible as the ads for fairness creams that literally surround the Indian population in magazines, billboards, web banners, and on television.