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Not Fair: Skin whitening and casual racism in beauty adverts

September 12th 2013 / Ayesha Muttucumaru Google+ Ayesha Muttucumaru / 1 comment

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Why in some cultures is it still the norm to believe that having dark skin means you won't be successful? Ayesha Muttucumaru investigates the casual racism of the beauty industry

Imagine if you were home one night watching TV and during the break, you stumbled across an advert where a man broke up with a woman because of the colour of her skin. Needless to say if such an advert existed here, the media storm that would follow would make sure that it would be swiftly removed from our screens without hesitation (if it even reached that far in the first place). Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Asia.

The skin whitening market is big business there, a multi-million pound industry that is continuing to grow at a rapid pace. In my motherland of Sri Lanka, adverts promoting fairness as the beauty ideal are a far too familiar sight on the local and Indian television channels with a bevy of beauty brands clambering left, right and centre to secure a place on the lucrative ‘lighter is lovelier’ bandwagon. Pond’s and Hindustan Unilever sparked outrage in 2008 when they released a soap-opera inspired series of fairness cream adverts where viewers were forced to wait with baited breath to see if a young woman’s true love took her back. Only once she’d used a lightening cream, of course. Not only that, but it starred top Bollywood actors Priyanka Chopra, Ali Khan and Neha Dhupia.

I also remember visiting Sri Lanka a few years ago and seeing another similar advertisement where a woman was finally able to achieve her dream of becoming a cricket commentator only once she’d turned a few shades lighter. I still remember the look on her deluded mother’s face as she gave her poor despairing, dark-skinned daughter the bottle - the key to success in her eyes. If this is the measure of someone’s potential and earning power then it’s fair to say (or unfair as the case may be) that my chocolate coloured behind is in deep trouble.

And it’s not just women who are being targeted in this way. The latest addition to a string of Fair and Handsome adverts starring Bollywood megastar Shar Rukh Khan is currently under fire for sending the same message to young men and boys – that you’ll only be successful if you’re fair-skinned.

Thankfully, it seems that people have had just about enough. An organisation called Women of Worth (WOW) has recently launched a petition appealing for this latest stint of offensive adverts to be taken off their television screens, initiated as part of its Dark is Beautiful campaign. Aimed at instilling confidence in all women and now men of every age, it works towards spreading the message that all skin tones are beautiful.

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So why in the name of Cadbury’s is fairness equated with beauty and success, in countries where the population is predominantly BROWN?

According to Kavitha Emmanuel, Director of WOW in India, “There are many explanations that could answer where skin colour bias originated. However, there are probably three main contributors: colonial influence, caste system, and media propaganda.

“The influence of all three and more over the years has bred a deep-rooted bias that equates success, beauty and even a sense of superiority to fair skin. The word 'beauty' itself when it comes to the human race has been attributed to what a woman should be and is expected to be.” She adds, “Gender stereotyping is also a major reason as to why external beauty or physical beauty is considered important for a woman. Various factors have driven us as a nation to tolerate and propagate the discriminatory attitude which says: fair is lovely, dark is not.”

Considering the sensitivity of the topic and the connotations that many people associate with the term “fair”, I can’t help but think that people in positions of influence should be wary before deciding to participate in such advertising campaigns; especially taking into account the magnitude of their celebrity, diversity of their fan base and the fact that they’re at the forefront of an industry that has been criticised for perpetuating such a stereotype in the past.

This is in fact the reason why Indian film actress Nandita Das has joined the Dark Is Beautiful campaign and has opted for less traditional “Bollywood” roles in her career. In a recent interview during BBC’s Woman’s Hour she stated, “I’m not really part of Bollywood, Bollywood denotes the more mainstream Hindi film industry and this is one of the reasons I’m not [part of it], because it does tend to stereotype characters and stories and to steer clear of that, that is why I work in independent films.”

She further commented, “When I do an urban character or if I do an affluent educated character then invariably, either the make-up artist or director or somebody will come and kind of sheepishly tell me ‘I know you don’t like to lighten your skin but because you’re playing an educated character, maybe you should.’”

On being described as “dark and dusky” by the Indian media she said, “When there’s an article about me it always begins with the ‘dark and dusky Nandita Das’. My point is when you write about other actors, you don’t begin with their fair skin.”

The association between how fair you are and far you’ll go in life is one that hits close to home for many of my peers as they recall the odd “harmless” comment made by well-meaning aunties, mums, dads and uncles warning them to “Stay out of the sun or you’ll get dark.” Nandita noted during the interview the extreme levels that this can sometimes reach, “There was one girl who wanted to commit suicide because her parents said ‘If you don’t become fair, we can’t get you married.’ She felt that her parents were very pressured and she was feeling guilty because of that and didn’t know how to get fair.”

So far, the petition has accumulated over 14,000 signatures with several artists, photographers and filmmakers joining the cause. At the time of writing, WOW has not yet received any response from Emami (the parent company of Fair & Handsome), Situations Advertising nor Shar Rukh Khan. However hopefully this campaign will encourage more people to speak out, making beauty brands and Bollywood finally wake up and smell the chai and realise that skin colour should not be a measure of a person’s success, marriageability or self-worth. It’s degrading, it’s disrespectful and at worst, it’s downright racist. This manipulation of an outdated viewpoint for the sole purpose of making a profit in this part of the world needs to stop.

I for one can’t wait for the day where I don’t flinch at the sound of the word “fair” and start to regard it in the same way that I would any other word in the English dictionary. It’s high-time that people’s attitudes, and not the colour of their skin, change and step out of the dark ages for good.

To sign the petition, visit www.change.org

For updates, follow @disbcampaign #disbcampaign #darkisbeautiful

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  • Sobia Aslam
  • September 14th 2013

Thank you for this - I'm Asian (though not Indian) and this attitude towards skin colour sickens me. I've signed the petition and more people should as well!

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