NEW DELHI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–Two attractive young women are sitting in a bedroom having an intimate conversation. The lighter-skinned woman has a boyfriend and, consequently, is happy. The darker-skinned woman, lacking a boyfriend, is not. Her friend’s advice? Use a bar of soap to wash away the dark skin that’s keeping men from flocking.
Hindustan Lever Limited, one of India’s largest manufacturing and marketing conglomerates, discontinued two of its television advertisements for Fair and Lovely Fairness Cold Cream this month, after a year-long campaign led by the All India Democratic Women’s Association. Increasing public criticism may be initiating a change in cultural attitudes towards skin whitening in India, a country where the fairness industry accounts for 60 percent of skincare sales, bringing in $140 million a year. The company is the Indian subsidiary of Unilever PLC, based in London.
In a memo to India’s National Human Rights Commission, Brinda Karat, general secretary of the women’s association, calls one of the ads “discriminatory on the basis of the color of skin,” and “an affront to a woman’s dignity,” because it shows fairer women having greater job success based on their sexuality.
Fair and Lovely, one of Hindustan Lever’s “power brands,” is marketed in over 38 countries. Its frequently-aired ads typically show a depressed woman with few prospects gaining a brighter future by attaining a boyfriend or job after becoming markedly fairer (emphasized by several silhouettes of her face lined up dark to light). On its Web site the company calls its product, “the miracle worker,” which is “proven to deliver one to three shades of change.”
The ad targeted by the women’s association shows a woman, whose father had lamented not having a son to support the family, landing a well-paying job as an airline attendant after using the product.
Hindustan Lever failed to respond to All India Democratic Women’s Association’s complaints, first sent in March and April 2002. The women’s association then appealed to the Human Rights Commission, which passed its complaints on to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The government recently issued notices of the complaints to the company. Karat credits this intervention, rather than any “sudden awakening to the feelings that women have when they see those ads,” with triggering the company’s about-face. “We’re not for heavy-duty censorship,” she said, but “when the companies don’t respond we have no alternative.”
Fairness as an Asset
If there is evidence that public opinion has changed, it is not to be found in the Indian matrimonial ads, with their “grooms” and “brides wanted” sections that families use to arrange suitable alliances. These ads, hundreds of which appear in India’s daily newspapers, reflect the country’s remarkable diversity in their attempts to solicit individuals with the appropriate religion, caste, regional ancestry, professional and educational qualifications, and frequently, skin color.
Even in the growing numbers of ads that announce “caste no bar,” the adjective “fair” still regularly precedes professional qualifications. A typical example shows that having a medical or graduate business degree is only part of the package: “Wanted really b’ful fair medico for h’some smart Doctor.”
“Fair skin is considered an asset in India,” said Rachna Gupta, a 38-year-old part-time interior designer. That’s why, once a month, she goes to a busy south Delhi salon to have Jolen Creme Bleach (“lightens excess dark hair” the box says) slathered over her face as a fairness treatment. “It’s not good for the skin,” Gupta said, “but I still get it done because I am on the darker side and it makes me feel nice. Aesthetically, it looks nice.”
However, the number of Indians who share Gupta’s opinion that lighter skin is more beautiful may be shrinking. Sumit Isralni, a 22-year-old hair designer in his father’s salon, thinks things have changed in the last two years, at least in India’s most cosmopolitan cities, Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Women now “prefer their own complexion, their natural way,” he said.
Isralni says he prefers a more “Indian beauty” himself. “I won’t find my wife to be fair, I won’t judge her on that,” he said.
Sunita Gupta, a beautician in the salon where Rachna Gupta gets her treatments, is more critical. “It’s just foolishness!” she exclaimed. The premise of the ads that women could not become airline attendants if they are dark-skinned was wrong, she said. “Nowadays people like black beauty.”
She goes on to cite dusky Indian female film actors Kajol Devgan and Rani Mukherjee as examples of her conviction, “If you are dark, then dark is the best.”
Health Concerns Over Lightening Grow
The awareness that whitening products can damage the skin is growing. To respond to health concerns, “Fair and Lovely” has come out with an “ayurvedic” formula, a term referring to a well-known system of Indian herbal medicine. And at an upscale salon in Delhi, at a chain also owned by Hindustan Lever, Puja Sharma stresses to potential customers that her lightening facials are all-natural, using milk and fresh fruits like tomato and papaya. However, at four to six times the price of Rachna Gupta’s monthly bleaching, this option finds fewer takers.
Even Gupta, a steadfast bleacher for over 15 years, admits the danger. “Two years back it was quite popular,” she said. “But now I think they’re focusing on less bleaching. It could harm the skin if it’s strong.”
So she checks the concentration of ammonia and continues her routine. “You have a small tingling kind of a feeling,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt too much.”
Battling for Public Opinion
Betting that the fairness craze in India will continue, American and European companies are fighting for their market share. Popular western brands Avon, L’Oreal, Lancome, Yves Saint-Laurent, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, and Revlon, offer whitening products. In addition, cheap knockoffs like “Cure and Lovely” are making the rounds.
Meanwhile, the Delhi-based Center for Advocacy and Research, which monitors media and conducts surveys on public opinion, has accused the industry in general of “unfair trade practices” and “using a social stigma to sell their products.”
On March 11, Hindustan Lever, shortly after pulling its ads off the air, launched its “Fair and Lovely Foundation,” vowing to “encourage economic empowerment of women across India” by providing resources in education and business. Sangeeta Pendurkar, the company’s skincare marketing manager, announced that the company believed millions of women “who, though immensely talented and capable, need a guiding hand to help them take the leap forward.” Presumably into a fairer future.
Nicole Leistikow is a freelance writer and news editor for Inthefray.com, currently based in New Delhi.
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