Not Just Skin Deep

Our obsession with fairness goes beyond desiring a brighter visage or a whiter vagina. Can a social media campaign change this 'colour' bias?

A not-so-new Shah Rukh Khan advertisement for Emami Fair and Handsome fairness cream for men is making ripples throughout social media. Not in terms of sales, though. A fledgling community on Facebook called “Dark is Beautiful” is petitioning on to have the advert removed. The community claims the advertisement is discriminatory and racist, that Shah Rukh Khan (or SRK as he is better known) should not use his star appeal to endorse colour bias.

The Dark is Beautiful campaign also has actor/activist Nandita Das as the face of several messages that state: “Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful'. The message has slowly been picked up by various media. Ms Das has been interviewed as condemning this fixation with fairness that has permeated across India. She said, “ the course of my social work, I once visited a remote village in Orissa that didn’t have enough food to eat, but had expired Fair and Lovely tubes”. Ms Das's comments have been reported across several media forums. There have been debates on Indians and our obsession with attaining fairer skin. And there has been a positive feedback for the campain itself. The Dark is Beautiful Facebook community has grown from 3,200 'likes' on July 23, to over 20,799 'likes' on Sep 30. 

The community itself has existed on FB since October 2012, but it is only now that it's message is resonating with other FB users.

So does all this mean Indians are now going to stop buying and using fairness creams? Not really. For one thing, the fairness cream makers are also on social media and use these forums to reach out to more potential customers. Every beauty giant worth it's name has not just an iconic celebrity fronting it's campaign, but also a user-friendly Facebook page and many 'apps' (applications) to test customers' 'fairness quotient'. For instance, Fair & Lovely (from Hindustan Unilever or HUL) has a 'Fairness Expert' app you can sign up for. The Fair & Lovely page itself is very popular, with over 87,348 'likes'.  Another example--Garnier Light India (owned by beauty giant L'oreal Paris) has varous apps—there's one titled 'Reveal Garnier Light's Change' where users are asked to click and “unlock the secret to complete fairness”.
Of course it is heartening that the Dark is Beautiful page is gaining in popularity. But is that more of an example of what a little publicity can achieve? There's another community on Facebook that calls itself 'Anti Whitening', it talks of how fairness products ruin your skin and your self-esteem. That page has 789 'likes' (on Sep. 30). Seems it's message is not really being heard. Or 'liked'.

In too deep?
Perhaps that is because our obsession with fairness creams is so much more than skin deep. And perhaps this collective colour consciousness requires more than a social media campaign, it needs a change within our minds and hearts as well. Just last year, there was a similar media firestorm over an intimate wash that claimed to whiten the genital area. Mumbai-based Midas Care Pharmaceuticals launched a new intimate wash Clean & Dry Intimate Wash in August 2012. The response was immediate and viral—social media was in uproar, there were furious debates condemning and yes, ridiculing our craze for fairness. The advertisement itself was vilified. There was much soul searching.

The company and more important, the new product, Clean & Dry Intimate Wash, naturally enough, benefited enormously from all the publcity. Women who had never heard of the wash started buying the product. The wash started selling well. And continues to sell well. In fact, the company now has an updated and improved the packaging and still advertises on national television (the new adverts do not carry any reference to whitening, per se). When I conducted a random survey of chemist's shops in the Bangalore Cantonment area, pharmacists told me the wash “is a fast-moving product”. Which could well be true. A little chemists' shop near Bangalore East railway station sells at least 15 units every month.

Midas Care confirmed this when I contacted them. Poonam, a company spokesman admitted that the wash is doing well. “We sell between 40,000 and 50,000 units every month, across India,” she said. She also told me that she uses it herself. “Not for fairness, but for hygiene purposes,” she added.

The irony is that despite all the furious backlash and the fast-selling, this intimate wash may not really do what it claims to. While researching the product, I came across an article by dermatologist Dr Hanan Taha, who does product reviews for the international beauty website Dr Taha is outraged by the product and its advertisement. And in her review of whether the ingredients in the wash will actually help in 'whitening', she writes, “...niacinamide seems to be the only ingredient that would work towards that goal, but ...its concentration might not be high enough, I have my doubts that any whitening can be achieved.” In the same article, she goes on to warn women against using any product that promises fairness in the vaginal region. “The area is sensitive and prone to irritation,” Dr Taha cautioned, in her product review.

Whitening or bleaching, take your pick
What message do we take away from the tale of these two campaigns? That despite everything, despite all the negative press, the desire to become fairer is overarching. The Dark is Beautiful campaign urges us to embrace beauty without bias, to be “colour blind” as it were. But the problem is we continue to want and use products to whiten our face, bodies, armpits and yes, our vaginas. In fact, in the months following the launch of the Midas Care product, other intimate washes have also been launched in India. The advertisements are classier of course, but the intent is the same, whiter skin, down there. Moreover, it seems there are other geographical users for these products now. In September 2012, Lactacyd White Intimate, an intimate wash was launched in Thailand. It claims to make the skin in the genital region “bright and translucent”, according to a report in The Guardian.

That is not all. Women who feel the washes don't work, have another option—vaginal bleaching. In January, while reporting on beauty trends writer Natalie K Bell, Editor at said anal bleaching “is also a hot, new procedure”. Here too, Indians lead the way, she noted. “The vaginal bleaching trend began in India and parts of Eastern Asia, where there has historically been a desire for fairer skin. But now, as women look for the perfect shade, they’re turning to products that will bleach them. The ingredients they’re using likely contain kojic acid or hydroquinone, which are generally the same ingredients used in lightening creams anywhere else on the body. Both work by inhibiting tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for melanin production,” said Bell.

An unfair, unlovely world
If a girl or woman buys and uses a fairness product, she, of course, has every right to do so. But why does she feel compelled to buy one in the first place? Ask Lizbeth James. No, she has not bought an intimate wash nor does she plan to do so. But she succumbed last year and picked up a fairness cream. That was after she met her (then) boyfriend's mother.

When Lizbeth met Cherian (name changed)'s mother for the first time, she was nervous but hopeful. She and Cherian Thomas had been dating for four years, since they were colleagues at an ad agency in Bangalore. Now, they were ready for marriage. But his mother, a retired school headmistress in Kerala, did not consent.

Lizbeth and Cherian are both from the same community, but for his mother, what seemed more important than the couple's happiness was Lizbeth's complexion. “She told me my dark skin colour showed my loose character, she implied I had led her son astray,” Lizbeth told me, still trembling inside from that fateful meeting. She went into a mild depression for weeks after that encounter with her (soon-to-be ex) boyfriend's mother.

Lizbeth is a statusque 5' 6”, and an accomplished Bharatanatyam/comtemporary dancer. An MBA-holder she was previously a highly paid team leader for a global education behemoth in Bangalore. Now, she runs her own contemporary dance company and juggles that with being the head of strategy and marketing at a young, upcoming advertising agency. She is also a dear friend of mine. But for Cherian's mother, her accompishments did not matter. She chose to reject this young woman on the basis of her flawless, mocha-coloured skin. What is more ironic is that Cherian himself is hardly the epitome of “fair and handsome” as SRK pronounces in his new advertisement. Cherian is of a nutbrown skin tone himself. But for his mother that made no difference. Only a fair bride will do for her son.

Tellingly enough, while Cherian continued to declare undying love for his girlfriend, he chose not to go against his mother's wishes. Instead, he meekly acquiesced with his parent's plans for an arranged marriage and even went to 'see' a girl, one presumably deemed fair enough to be acceptable as his wife.

When an educated former school head mistress can judge (and find wanting) a talented dark-skinned young woman, is it surprising that fairness creams continue to sell well? My friend Lizbeth, an extrovert, became withdrawn and plagued by self-doubt. So much so that she started applying a cream to lighten her flawless complextion. But no, Cherian is not part of her life anymore.

The 'shade card' in our heads
Lizbeth's experience is not all that uncommon really. Radhika V, another dear friend, went through similar soul-searching, on her wedding day in January this year.

Radhika is a petite, wheatish-complexioned 29-year-old. On her wedding day, she was resplendent in fuchsia silk standing beside her new husband receiving presents and wishes from their guests. Then a family friend, a mother of two daughters, came up to the new bride and congratulated her. “She told me I must count my blessings for netting such a fairskinned husband”, Radhika told me later. Radhika is a graduate of the London School of Economics (LSE), she speaks fluent French, she has translated a French science book into English. Her father is a former high ranking Naval official and her mother, a former journalist. But neither her LSE degree nor her impeccable pedigree prepared her for her well wisher's unfair comments. “The woman went on to tell me she had expected me marry to someone like me—short and dark. I was dumbfounded, to be honest. Later, I thought of many smart retorts but at that precise moment, I couldn't think of anything to tell that woman,” the new bride said, still fuming.

As a dark-skinned woman myself and mother to a fair-skinned little boy, I empathise entirely with both Lizbeth and Radhika. I am a Malayalee and my genes prove it—curly hair and coffee-coloured skin is something I inherited from my father. My husband is a Hoysala Karnataka Brahmin and he has his mother's extremely fair skin. When we got married 12 years ago, we were frequently told, in jest of course, that we are proof of how “opposites attract”. Because we really are totally different, poles apart, both in skin colour and height-wise--my husband is 6' 2” tall, I am 5' 1” . At one of the first family functions we attended together, one of his relatives told my husband graciously: “Swalpa kappu, aadhare channagidale”(transliteration: she is black but beautiful, anyway). Only my husband's glare told the tactless man that he had not paid me a compliment, but had committed a faux pas.

I have never heard such comments to my face, let me be honest. But in my heart, I sometimes wonder why such a fair man as my husband chose to marry a dark skinned girl. Perhaps nature has a way of balancing everything out, including our insecurities. Our four-and-a-half-year-old son is a beautiful mixture of our combined hues—he has honey gold skin. In truth, I am glad he is not as dark skinned as I am. So he will not experience the insecurities and agonies I went through, growing up.

Whitewashing our brains
Why do I, an educated woman and a journalist (ergo, assumed to be an objective observer of society!) think this way? I really cannot help it. Given that every day, every waking moment, like everybody else, I too am bombarded by advertisements (in newspapers, on the television, on hoardings, everwhere I look, really) that talk about how fairness is crucial to success in life and love—to land that dream job, find a life partner, to feel beautiful, inside and out.

Today, fairness is considered an achievement everyone should and must aspire to. Just the names of the brands are an indication of an achievable an aspiration—Fair & Lovely, Fairever, White Perfect, Perfect Radiance, White Glow, Healthy White, Natural White, Blanc Expert (blanc is white in French), Fine Fairness, Pearl Perfect. Every brand sends out a very clear message, that 'white'ness is the beauty ideal to possess. Everything else, any other shade, falls short. To make matters simple, today there are brands to suit every budget—from Rs 5 sachets to luxury buys that can break the bank.

No, I do not use fairness creams. But I understand my friend Lizbeth for finally picking up a fairness product. I also applauded the loudest when she broke it off with the boyfriend who could not stand up for her. As for Radhika's much fairer husband Avinash, he is aghast at what their wedding guest told his wife. “I fell in love with her, because of the person she is, not because of her skin colour. Her complexion is immaterial,” he stressed. The problem is, not many people think that way.

Make me fairer, doctor
Ask Dr Mukta Sachdev. That she has many clients is entirely because of how good the Bangalore-based dermatologist is. She has a thriving business. She also sees many people, men and women, who want to become fairer. “Of every 100 patients I see, at least 20 to 30 (both men and women), seek fairer skin,” she told me. This obsession is extremely unhealthy and can actually harm, the doctor said. Adolscents who are 14 or 15 years of age come to her, on their own. That is natural given the enormous peer pressure they face. What she finds more worrying is how parents are becoming fixated on achieving lighter, brighter skin tones for their daughters. “Once a couple brought their seven-year-old to me. I refused to treat her. They were worried because their own relatives had been castigating them over her dark skin colour. The child, meanwhile, was too young to undersand what the fuss was all about,” said the dermatologist.

Dr Sachdev is herself dusky. She understands what young people, specially young women, go through when they are constantly told that to be fair is the ideal. She believes that human nature comes into play here. “Young people (and their parents) are affected by what family members, relatives and friends say about their looks,” she pointed out. So, girls seeking to boost their marital prospects continue to go to her for they are told again and again that dark skin is a disadvantage.

Dr Sachdev tries to make her patients understand that while she can enhance the complexion and correct unevenness of skin tone, she cannot change or lighten their skin colour. “In fact, I always tell them to be confident, literally, in their own skin. In fact, I tell them to look at me, my skin colour,” said the dermatolgist, a smile lighting up her face. But to no avail. Girls of marriageable age still flock to her. As do adolescents.

The doctor now believes she must become a counsellor to her patients. “I now plan to do a course in psychology so I can make them understand that the colour of their skin does not determine their destiny,” said the dermatologist. She is not alone in saying that this colour-consciousness can harm. Another dermatologist, Dr Belinda Vaz, a Mumbai-based dermatologist, wrote on the 'Dark is Beautiful' Facebook page that she “sees many young people traumatised because of their skin color. They are often depressed, have low self esteem, lack confidence and are willing to use unsafe remedies just to look a shade lighter,” Dr Vaz said. Referring to fairness cream advertisements on telelvision in general, and specifically, to the new SRK advertisement for 'Fair and Handsome', Dr Vaz added: “Such Ads (sic) and products should be banned!”

Dark and depressed
No matter what doctors like Dr Sachdev or Dr Vaz tell their patients, there is always this striving to achieve “lighter, whiter, brighter” skin colour (as one advertisement tagline urges us to do). And it can sometimes have tragic consequences. Last year, The Times of India reported that depression over their looks had led young women living in the outskirts of Bangalore, to even attempt suicide: One girl consumed pesticide, another poured kerosene on her face. Both recovered and were being counselled, the newspaper report said.

Dr G P Gururaj, a Bangalore-based psychiatrist who treated one of the suicidal girls, told me that young people could be resorting to such extreme measures because there is now intense focus on physical attributes. “In rural areas, there is also this crude way of referring to a person by his or her skin colour or size—calling a boy 'kariya' or 'dumma' (literally, “darkie” or “fatso”), for example. That can really affect the person at the receiving end,” he explained.
That words can do great harm is something Lizbeth, Radhika, I, myself and many other dark-skinned women, know very well. That we continue to remain sane and successful is mainly because of the strength and love we receive from our loved ones.

A long, fair tradition
But how did we as a nation get to this? To this blitzkrieg of advertising urging us to peel away our diffidence, to unlock our confidence and reveal our fair, glowing selves? To blindly follow what the fairness cream advertisements urge us to do? To go back to the beginning, we have to go back to 1975--when Hindustan Lever (now HUL) launched Fair & Lovely fairness cream. On the company website, HUL claims it is the world's first fairness cream and is now also the world's largest selling fairness cream selling in over 30 countries. “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair & Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that 'beauty that empowers a woman to change her destiny',” the company states on its website. HUL claims it's skin-lightening technology is “the best in the world”, but do fairness creams really work?

According to Dr Kiran Lohia, dermatologist and founder of New Delhi-based Cosmedic Skin Solutions, most fairness creams do not do what they claim to. She writes on (a health and beauty news website): “fairness creams are supposed to change the natural colour of your skin to a lighter version of it. In fact, one’s skin colour is genetically determined, and is decided through the number, size and distribution of melanosomes, or sacs containing melanin or pigment, scattered in the top layer of the skin.” Darker skin types, she said, have more melanin, lighter skins have less. “An analysis of the three most popular fairness creams in India revealed that only around 5-10% of the ingredients actually help in promoting fairness. Furthermore, although these ingredients, such as niacinamide and ascorbyl glucosidase, have some purported clinical efficacy at reducing melanin synthesis, there have been no studies to clinically prove their effect. The remaining ingredients actually act by moisturising and softening the skin, or by protecting against UV exposure.” Basically, the ingredients make the skin look slightly brighter, she said, in the article.

The doctor goes on to warn that pigmentation is a concern in India, given our exposure to harsh sunlight. “Hydroquinone, Alpha-Arbutin, Vitamin A derivatives and Alpha-Hydroxy Acids” work to remove pigmentation, she said, However, “hydroquinone, a potent melanin synthesis inhibitor, is used in concentrations of 2% over the counter, and 4% by prescription in combination with other ingredients. Unfortunately, it has many side effects, including redness, irritation and the risk of ochronosis, or paradoxical darkening of the area where it is being used. Furthermore, it has recently been shown to cause leukemia or blood cancer in animals, leading to it being banned in the European Union,” she added.

User, harm thyself, knowingly?
So basically, when a girl or woman uses a fairness cream, she is applying potentially very harmful substances to her skin. More than once, every day. Because all makers of fairness products urge users to use the prodcuts every day, or even twice daily for “best results”. In fact, many women have different brightening day creams and night creams which they then use daily. What is astonishing here is not that there is enough research out there to show how potentially dangerous fairness creams can be. What is astounding is that we continue to use them. Why? Sudha Sitaraman, sociologist and womens' studies specialist said it is all due to a self-reinforcing cycle. “Fairness creams now determine how we look and we aspire to look that way because these creams are part of a heirarchisation of what constitutes beauty. We feel inadequate if we are not made in that image, so we buy (a fairness cream) and apply, it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. But in the long run, it doesn't help”. That stars—actors and actresses—endorse these products makes all the difference, she said. “We identify ourselves with these heroes/heroines, take on their habits, and yes, pick up the creams they are shown as using,” added Sitaraman.

So children are fair game too?
It is one thing to get actors and have them urge adults to use fairness creams, but how ethical is it to target young children? Today fairness cream advertisements are not restricted to the 'grown-up' television channels but are also frequently aired on childrens' channels too. I know because my son is a POGO fan. Or he used to be. Till he asked me to buy him a “fairness sachet” that came free with a popular brand of toothpaste. He saw the advertisement during a break in his favourite television show featuring his hero-Chota Bheem.

My son has no idea what a fairness cream is. Though he has seen advertisements for White Tone 'instant' fairness powder that air during Chota Bheem episodes. When he asked me to get him the fairness cream sachet just because it came free with a toothpaste, I had to act. First I banned television, instead, my husband and I read more to our son. Then, I lodged an online complaint with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) in the last week of June this year. In the complaint, I explained my reasons for seeking a ban on fairness creams products on childrens' channels: that a fairness cream meant for adults should not be aired on a childrens' channel, that it can potentially skew the childrens' thinking and make them feel that fair skin is something they too need to possess. This thinking could make them lack self-confidence in later years, I said, in the complaint.

In July, I got a response from ASCI. I reproduce it in full below in bold font (Note: the capitalisation is theirs, not mine):

Your Complaint regarding White tone face powder with the tracking code 613f319eea27 has been processed with Final Complaint Number C.5057. You can check the status of your complaint on track complaint page.

Thank you for having referred this complaint to us. The complaint was considered by the Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) at their meeting. As per their decision, the complaint HAS NOT BEEN UPHELD. The CCC viewed the TVC and concluded that the messages conveyed in the TVC were not objectionable. Also, the CCC did not consider that the ad should be restricted to Adult channels only. The complaint was NOT UPHELD.

Assuring you of our services in the pursuit of Self-Regulation in Advertising.

So, according to ASCI, it is perfectly legal and ethical to show fairness cream advertisements on childrens' channels. Never mind the potentially harmful consequences of repeatedly exposing young minds to advertisements that show what lengths adults go through to achieve fairer skin. Never mind what a little girl or boy will think when she/he sees her mother (or father) applying a fairness cream, day after day, twice a day, for best results.
But who cares, really? Does SRK care that the brand he endorses comes from a long tradition of products that feed off our insecurities? These products are cleverly marketed to make us believe that by using a fairness cream, we are “empowering” ourselves. Who are we kidding? 'Dark is Beautiful' is a truly powerful campaign and it deserves to be in the limelight. 
But will it make us embrace our true colours? Or for that matter, make each of us throw away that tube—of fairness cream?

(While this is an entirely original piece, parts of this article were published in Talk magazine in February 2013)

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