The Dark Side of Beauty
By Simi Kuriakose
Recalling one of the many experiences of colourism he faced, 34-year-old Jeremy (name changed) talks about a childhood memory, “In fourth grade, representatives from a clothing brand visited school to cast ‘cute’ children in an ad. We were excited to be a part of it. But ‘cute’, for them, included only fair children.”
35-year-old Luna Daniel narrates a few comments that she heard when she was younger, including ‘I would totally date you if you were a shade lighter’. Daniel says, “I’ve heard so many such comments throughout my teens and adulthood, and this is happening right now to millions of women like me.”
Women in South India face more pressure to look fair, according to Purushu Arie, a fashion designer and founder of his namesake ungendered fashion line. Arie says, “It is probably because Tamil films accept [actors who are] dark men and fair-skinned women.” Speaking about his experiences, Arie adds that he faced colourism when he relocated to Delhi, “At college, my colour was often pointed out to me, in various contexts. It was normal there to make fun of colour.”
While the aforementioned incidents, among other experiences by women and men shared with the writer on a social media platform, might have happened years ago, not much has changed over time. Earlier this year, five-year-old Kiara (name changed) walked up to her mother asking ‘Why am I not as white as her?’ as she pointed to a kid with a lighter skin tone. Her mother was perplexed since they never discussed fair skin as a precursor to beauty and reiterated to Kiara that she is beautiful exactly the way she is. However, an exchange on the playground was enough to make the child doubt positive affirmations from her parents. While it may seem innocent on the surface, this points to a problem enmeshed in Indian society. We may believe we’re evolving but prejudices against dark skin are still present.
COLOURISM & ACTIVISM
The unfortunate killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May sparked protests around the world. The incident reinforced the social-issue hashtag Black Lives Matter (BLM), expanding it into a movement amid the pandemic. With a number of people calling out brands on social media for lack of diversity, fostering racial discrimination and/or partaking in performative allyship, many brands took an immediate stand against racism. As these sentiments trickled in, India also reviewed colourism.
Kavitha Emmanuel, Director, Women of Worth, who started the Dark Is Beautiful campaign in 2009, says, “We are still battling this ancient mindset [colourism]. Our campaign facilitated conversations on a national and international level. It has had a cascading effect and attention was brought to the subject. We had written to brands and matrimonial [sites] back then, but received no response. There was some change; for the first time, the Advertising Standards Council of India came up with brand guidelines, and we heard about the proposal to ban ads with false claims and that pharmaceutical companies would be held accountable. What we would really like to stress on is that we initiate conversation with students and young people. We do media literacy workshops on how to filter media messages and deal with colourism at ground level, and that is what should increase more. Today, even if the ads disappear there would still be a bias. Of course, it is important that these ads are addressed and messaging definitely matters because we’re hosting a toxic belief and that has to go.”
Earlier last month, Johnson & Johnson decided to stop selling skin-whitening products. In a communication over email, the company sent a quote attributed to its spokesperson, “We’ve made the business decision to no longer sell the NEUTROGENA® Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Clear Fairness product line.” The communication added that they “will no longer produce or ship the product line.”
On June 25, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) said that it “will stop using the word ‘Fair’ in the brand name ‘Fair & Lovely’.” In a statement, Unilever’s Sunny Jain, President, Beauty & Personal Care, explained, “We recognise the use of words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right. As we’re evolving the way that we communicate the skin benefits of our products that deliver radiant and even tone skin, it’s also important to change the language we use.” On Thursday, the company announced “Glow & Lovely, the new name for the Fair & Lovely brand”, while “the Men’s range will be called ‘Glow & Handsome’.” The move was criticised by some on social media, who called out the brand on tokenism.
On June 26, news reports mentioned that a spokesperson from L’Oréal said the brand will “remove words referencing “white”, “fair” and “light” from its skin-evening products.” For further clarity, we reached out to L’Oréal India, who said there was no specific communication for the Indian media and directed us to international news articles.
India has a number of personal care companies with a portfolio of skin-whitening products. We reached out to NIVEA to know their stance and received an official statement by Neil George, Managing Director, NIVEA INDIA, mentioning that the brand has “started a process of reviewing our global and regional product portfolios to determine implications of changing perceptions for our product offering and marketing approach.”
SHIFT IN MESSAGING
How positively brands communicate to their audience remains important to retain consumers and stay relevant in today’s times. We spoke to a few C-suite executives from leading advertising agencies on whether inclusivity is a mandate included in the communication from brands.
Talking to us about how beauty is perceived, Freya D’Souza, AVP — Strategy, Dentsu Webchutney, says, “The notions of beauty aren’t objective, but all about perception. In every community across the globe, the ideals of beauty differ and intersect with various other aspects of personal identity. Thus, the question of inclusive beauty messaging merits two considerations — does advertising influence society or is merely a reflection of it, and have we as Indian society evolved our ideals of the beauty aesthetic. To the first, advertising at its core, simply communicates an answer to what the market demands — and with the fairness market estimated to be Rs. 5,000 crore by 2023, it seems unlikely that brands like Unilever and Emami will vacate this category, citing principle over profit. They will continue to communicate the product, which hasn’t changed at all, but will now use current beauty vocabulary has evolved to replace words like ‘fair’ with ‘glow’. Does this (arguably performative?) wokeness signal a paradigm change in society? Our idea of beauty is inherited in part from India’s caste structure, where lower castes were associated with darker skin tones. We rarely talk of things like caste and class in polite (urban) society today, but the idea of ‘fair privilege’ is still a real notion in our everyday lives. That said, it is encouraging that the true power of social media is exemplified in matters like this — where community comes together to ensure consumer voices are heard, and where corporations and brands are held accountable for their communication.”
Discussing how it is high time for brands to amplify their efforts, Dheeraj Sinha, Managing Director — India, Chief Strategy Officer — South Asia, Leo Burnett, says, “The ideal of beauty is a chase. When you are buying that lipstick, kohl or cream, you want to highlight yourself and look the best version of yourself. There’s indeed nothing wrong in this chase to be the best [version] of yourself. The problem has been that some categories and brands have seeded/fed a sense of inferiority complex — you will not succeed if you are not fair and so on. These have gone beyond beauty and personality needs, they have tried to ride on a class and race-based narrative. The idea that fairer skin is more beautiful than dark skin originates from class/race-linked inferiority complex. It is not a beauty-led need, it’s been turned into one. Unfortunately, brands have fed this narrative far too long. And they haven’t searched their souls all this while, till they realised that there’s a widespread cultural revolution building up against this narrative. Today, marketing is being forced to trace back its steps. Ideally, this realisation should have come a long time ago. And even then, what’s being done doesn’t match up to the degree of damage done or the profits that have been made by feeding this narrative. By dropping a part of your name, you aren’t doing anybody a favour. To my mind, this is too little, too late. If brands what to make up for this, they need to work equally hard to build the narrative that dark is beautiful, maybe do away with the ingredients that suppress melanin production. Only a full counter approach can be counted as any serious attempt to undo decades of mis-selling.”
DETRIMENTAL TO HEALTH
Negative messaging by brands offering such products can lead to self-esteem issues. Dr Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist, says, “90 per cent people in India, or more, have wheatish skin [complexion], and you’re telling them they aren’t good enough!? Especially for teenagers who go through body image issues, products like these underline those aspects and worsen them.”
Apart from negative messaging, investigation has proven that certain skin-whitening products contain harmful ingredients like hydroquinone, mercury and topical corticosteroids. Talking about their ill-effects, Dr Kiran Kaur Sethi, dermatologist and founder, Isya Aesthetics, says, “Hydroquinone can cause rashes, irritation, and redness on the skin. Further, there is a small risk of Ochronosis, where you get a paradoxical slate grey/dark blue discolouration of treated skin. Mercury poisoning can damage the nervous system, cause nausea and vomiting, gastrointestinal and kidney toxicity, and affect brain development. It is also associated with a syndrome called the mad hatter syndrome.”
As brands slowly pay heed to diverse voices, some of us continue unlearning the idea of beauty that was once considered ideal. Daniel mentions that the remarks that bothered her earlier, evoke no reaction now. She adds, “I decided I had enough of complying to others’ standards”. While such negative messaging has been detrimental to the self-esteem of many, the discourse about colourism has marginally offset this negative impact. Like 29-year-old Nupura Bhaskar, dancer and actor, concludes, “I found beauty in my colour in the modelling industry. The culture has changed a bit. Though some make-up artists still make me look grey and fairer girls get more attention from casting directors. I love my skin tone, and I do not want to be fair.”
Here’s what a few celebrities have to say about the change in messaging by beauty brands:
“I tend to think that changes like these go a long way. These products are made and sold because people buy and use them. And that happens because society equates fairness with attractiveness, thereby discriminating/harassing those considered dark in our country — a diverse and colourful country. So dropping words may be a baby step, but it is symbolic. And I appreciate it. It is the beginning of change.”
—Richa Chadha, actor
“It is wonderful to see that globally people are demanding an all-inclusive idea of beauty. While using any beauty product is an individual’s choice, what we need to address is how some fairness cream brands propagate the message that success is the result of ones nikhaar or light skin colour. That is wrong and needs to be changed. While it is a good first step that brands have decided to do away with the word ‘fair’, what will actually make a difference is also changing the messaging so that gradual conditioning evolves. India’s obsession with fairness is deep-rooted and needs to be analysed holistically. Whether it is our history of being colonised where White was authority or the imagery that deems lighter skin as more attractive, we are all responsible and need to do our bit. For example, even lyrics of film songs in the past have spoken about the girl with a gora mukhda. So the onus is not just on fairness cream brands to bring about a change in the mindset, it is up to all of us in our capacity to address this conditioning in our daily lives .”
—Shriya Pilgaonkar, actor
Courtesy : India Today