I have a challenge for you. Google “Bollywood actors and actresses” in one tab. Now open another tab, and type in “Indian people.” Now I want you to compare the two. The chance that you see a similarity in the complexion of the actors and actresses, and the citizens of India are slim to none.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be, given Bollywood’s long-standing obsession with emulating colonial-era beauty standards!
Not to mention, if you are a product of an Indian home, you probably grew up bombarded by ‘Fair and Lovely’ commercials, where plots are as bizarre as the Western ideology that fair is good, borderline angelic, whereas dark is evil and sinister.
I remember growing up and watching a ‘Fair and Lovely’ ad where a dark-complexioned woman goes in for a job interview and gets denied the job. Then, her worried mother hands her a tube of ‘Fair and Lovely.’
Moments later, the same women, now three dramatic shades lighter (Gwyneth Paltrow, eat your heart out), goes back for the interview and magically gets the job.
Are we not going to talk about her credentials? Did this women happen to gain some more work experience in that short amount of time, or did the magical tube of ‘Fair and Lovely’ come with a side of instant work experience our unwitting female was able to inject like a dosage of insulin?
We laugh at this, but there is an underlying uncomfortable truth behind this scenario. We see it here in the Western world too where a lot of us, unfortunately, are compared to our lighter peers.
‘Fair and Lovely’ is a skin whitening cream which, despite criticism, remains a million dollar industry in India. In 2015, sales of such products were estimated at INR 27.6 billion. The popularity of this product seems to have remained steady, with continued celebrity endorsements, and beauty pageant sponsorships in abundance. It certainly doesn’t help that for the better part of Bollywood’s history, they have encouraged this notion that heroic tales of courage and winning at life belong to those with paler skin-tones.
Women in India have testified to using skin-lightening treatments as well as procedures such as chemical peels, laser treatments, steroid cocktails, whitening pills, and injections in order to achieve the lighter skin sold to them by the likes of Bollywood. This dangerous cultural obsession can lead to many health risks and permanent damages, and yet, the industry continues to boom. A lot of people continue to buy the poisonous trope sold to us by ‘Fair and Lovely’ ads, where fair skin is offered up as the central way of getting your dream job, or your dream spouse, or that elusive self-esteem.
In India, the term “dusky” is used to describe people that are dark in complexion, and is often used in a negative, derogatory way. In Bollywood, darker actors and actresses play many of the secondary characters, villains, or poor and uneducated characters, while the protagonist is always depicted to be educated, wealthy, and of course, relatively light-skinned. Additionally, his damsel-in-distress is also played by a light-skinned actress, and more often than not, is even paler than the lead. In a true testament to the Eurocentric ideology that traditionally Caucasian features are more desirable, if you have colored eyes and light brown hair, you are put on an even higher pedestal.
There are no two ways about it: we have a long way to go. Skin-lightening products have wreaked their havoc on the self-esteem of billions for a long time by relying on archaic, Eurocentric narratives.
As an aside, it is important to note that this aggravating phenomenon is not just limited to Indian consumers. In fact, global spending on skin-lightening products is projected to triple to a mind-blowing USD 31.2 billion by 2024.
However, to counteract this worrying trend, there are campaigns out there, such as #unfairandlovely, a viral hashtag that celebrates dark complexioned women redefining cultural norms, as well as the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, which was launched in 2009 by Kavitha Emmanuel. The campaign hosts workshops and advocacy programs in schools to counteract color bias.
Given all of the facts, there are no two ways about it: we have a long way to go. Skin-lightening products have wreaked their havoc on the self-esteem of billions for a long time by relying on archaic, Eurocentric narratives. However, through the power of social media and the voices of those who refuse to yield to colonial ideas of colorism, we are making greater strides than ever before. For the first time, we have an opportunity to subvert the toxic narrative that products like ‘Fair and Lovely’ embody, and it is of the utmost importance that we take this opportunity, and refuse to stop until every individual understands that unfair IS lovely.