How the Global Debate on Racism and Colourism Forced India's Industry to Confront the Lightning Cream Issue
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As Unilever rename ‘Fair and Lovely’ to ‘Glow and Lovely’ and the Indian government introduces a jail sentence for advertising whitening creams, LBB’s Natasha Patel speaks to industry experts on what will happen to a billion dollar market
But, it wasn’t any of this that acted as the catalyst for change. That came as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement that caused waves across the world. Those waves reached 22 year-old Indian Chandana Hiran whose change.org petition prompted the debate of why “fair and lovely dictates our ideals of beauty”. The petition fast racked up almost 35,000 signatures and forced the brand to remove the words ‘fair, fairness, white, whitening, light, and lightening’ from their products and packaging.
Shaziya Khan, national planning director at Wunderman Thompson India, believes that the change has been brewing for a long time. “Black Lives Matter affected everyone of any kind of life that was not mattering and that was an imposition. It’s knocked on everyone’s conscience and in a good way. It was like ‘we need to think harder about these things’.”
However, she believes that there are plenty of theories that argue that the concept of fairness equating to beauty is “colonial conditioning” and despite things moving so far ahead in some ways, this “stagnant historical concept of beauty”, is just that, stagnant.
Kinita Shenoy, former editor at Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka, wholeheartedly agrees with this view. She made headlines when she shared her own story around skin lightening creams earlier this year. For Kinita, being an editor of a women’s magazine came with the perks of plenty of beauty products, but when Unilever continued to send her fairness creams despite a refusal to endorse them things got out of hand. The brand pulled all advertising from the publication after the magazine’s refusal to fire Kinita.
“Speaking out is always perceived negatively in our societies. We live in a culture of complicity and silence. Regardless of what we speak out about, women are perceived as impertinent, dramatic, attention-seeking, playing the victim, or straight-up lying”, she explains.
“I think whitening creams are a toxic part of a larger problem around colour, race, and the oppression of women's bodies. The reason, I think, why whitening creams are so upsetting is because they are a tangible product that profits off the colourism problem. Colourism has a long history rooted in colonialism, casteism, and classism, but whitening creams are perpetuating the problem via horrendous marketing and the very existence of the product itself.”
The official definition of colourism states that it is “prejudice or discrimination, especially within the same racial or ethnic group, favouring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin”.
So, is there a link between casting and colourism? Even if there is, it’s even harder to find industry experts to explain this than it is to come up with examples that there isn’t. Aside from movies, one can turn to advertising to see the link between casting and colourism. Looking back at clips from Indian spots from the past year alone, the vast majority of women are depicted with fairer skin.
One can argue that this is because the women who have chosen a career in acting and advertising just happen to be fairer skinned. But, in a country of a billion people there are many who are not, and who are driven towards using fairness creams in a bid to be like the stars. One such community would be those in the rural markets who have been typically poorer and many are daily wage earners living on the poverty line with no spare money for such extravagances such as whitening cream.
Many of the youth in these areas will grow up with the notion that they are already not good enough based on their looks and stray off the path of success due to a low self-esteem. Thus the vicious cycle is never-ending. To these people Kinita says: “We are not ugly, we are not minorities, we are not lesser than. Do not accept that narrative from advertising, from your communities, or even your families.”
The marketing and campaigns that come from these products are almost as talked about as the faces that endorse them. It seems that there have been no end to the Bollywood superstars who have had their faces plastered on a billboard with a fairness cream to reiterate to consumers that to be fair is to be lovely. These same celebrities then posted black squares on their Instagram feed in support of Black Lives Matter. Contradiction much? Or is this a reflection of the passing of time and maturity for the big stars? Regardless of what it is, in India Bollywood actors are often revered as gods and thus they have a duty to steer fans in the right direction.
Those who have one foot in the Bollywood gossip machine will remember when, in June of this year, actor Abhay Deol took to social media to call out Bollywood’s biggest stars who have endorsed fairness creams in the past. Cue the images of a fresh-faced Deepika Padukone, John Abraham and Shah Rukh Khan promoting various forms of whitening creams for both men and women.
Finding people in the public eye to talk about fairness creams and endorsements is a strenuous task, so this post by Abhay was utterly eye-opening, even more so when he is a cousin of some of the industry’s biggest names. He ended the rant by exclaiming: “No one at the top of their game in any field is going to tell you that it is demeaning, false and racist”. And in a different tone to anything that the Shah Rukh Khans and Priyanka Chopras of the world were saying he urged fans to “stop buying into the idea that a particular shade is better than others”.
Isobar India’s CCO Anish Varghese shares his views on star’s endorsements: “The new age fans believe their celebrities to act for good and they have to be genuine beyond the silver screen. Nevertheless, they observe celebrities helping brands to glorify the idea that only fair-skinned people become successful.” Cheil India’s CCO Emmanuel Upputuru supports this view by mentioning that many of the fashion models who are seen on catwalks are fair-skinned as are many actresses who are given roles “based on appearance” rather than talent.
However Anish wants the creative industry to drive the change: “It's the eleventh hour now for the advertisers to come up with a narrative which is neutral so that the whole country positively takes up the core message.”
One such change in messaging is the recent campaign from Lux soap created by Wunderman Thompson India and featuring one of Bollywood’s hottest couples, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Saif Ali Khan. The pair’s chemistry is set to the backdrop of the song ‘Chand Sa Roshan Chehra’ with a literal reference to using the soap to give off a moonlight glow on the face.
The term ‘glow’ isn’t as provocative as ‘fair’ when it comes to altering the shade of your face, but does that make it any better when social media is awash with constant messaging of beauty coming from within? Shaziya believes that nothing is that narrow anymore. She adds: “That’s why everyone has embraced a far richer concept of beauty and so when you have a very narrow message it knocks against it. It doesn’t fit anymore.
“There’s a lot of conversation about glow, the new thing is glow, which is colour neutral. Maybe it’s a euphemism for whitening but at least it steers the narrative in a space that’s not got a colour leaning this way or that.”
This of course prompted the question of whether there is a market for fairness creams in the industry anymore to which Shaziya believes there is, but in a “progressive way”. “People are exploring brightening or glow. The whole narrative has to be a progressive narrative too, right now it’s very anchored in the notion of a stereotype.”
India’s beauty standards have been an ever-evolving debate, with the country proudly acknowledging that it has had six Miss World crowns since 1966. With advertising on board with changing messaging as well as the critical lens through which diversity is viewed, 2020 may be the year of changing the ideals and definitions of beauty to be all encompassing and acknowledged today for the India of tomorrow.