India: Skin-Whitener Capital of the World – Racist or Whiteist?

Originally published on Suite101, October 16, 2011

In a country where higher education is seen as the key to the future, it is ironic that, for women at least, there is a “fair skin” override.

Barbbytes dancer“Sucessful Dusky Bollywood Women” touted the Yahoo headline (misspelling and all), before going on to say that, “These beauties defied the set norms and proved that light skin is not the gateway to success.” Dusky? Bollywood? It is strange to think of a country as ancient, large, and diverse as India in the context of skin color issues; yet, like questions of caste that arise in spite of the ban, skin color is an obvious and admitted bias in this nation of over 1.3 billion people.

Unilever, L’Oreal, and Garnier produce bleaching creams and skin whiteners

An instant measure of how preeminent the desire for fair skin is in India comes to us from Unilever, the manufacturers of Dove globally. The familiar Dove tag line, “Love the skin your in” fades into the background in a country where “fair” can determine everything from employability to marriageability. “Fair & Lovely”, one of Unilever’s skin whitening Barbbytes Fair and Lovelycreams, beckons from the shelves of over a million locations throughout the sub-continent and is used regularly by over 30 million women. That equates to 20% of all females, young and old, in the United States, and skyrocketing profits for Unilever, L’Oreal, and the whitener brotherhood in India and Asia.

Aside from the issues of social welfare and self-empowerment, concerns about “Fair & Lovely” and its market twins also must face off against viable doubts as to its medical and advertised efficacy. Unilever statements deny the presence of the most dangerous whitening agents such as mercury or hydroquinone, but other sources point out that without those agents, “Fair & Lovely” may be more hype than white. And it is the hype that offends many of those encouraging Indian society to look beyond skin tone.

In terms of marriage, white isn’t only for the dress

The idea that a woman is not beautiful enough if she can’t list “fair skinned” in her Barbbytes Skin-Lighteningmatrimonial ad has become the subject of debate in many arenas. Indian television’s “We the People” questioned an advertising producer, Prahlad Kakkar, in front of a studio audience. He asserted that for the public in general, and advertisers in particular, a dusky skinned woman is more likely to be taken to a hotel room than home to “Mum”. In India, as well as the diaspora, matrimonial ads are an accepted means of spouse hunting, by brides, grooms, and their respective parents. Dozens of newspapers and even Barbbytes Matrimonial-Published-Every-Sundaymore websites offer column after column of detailed ads listing every prerequisite for a successful arranged marriage: age, height, religion, languages spoken, education, employment prospects, and, of course, skin tone. Consistently, “fair skinned” is requested. It has always been so.

An historic bias in favor of fair skin

In the days of the Raj and in the eons before, in times when the caste system was firmly in place, women who did not work in the fields or walk the hot, dusty lanes of rural India; those who had servants, shade trees, and spacious homes, were dressed in silks and the fairest skin in the land. When invaders overwhelmed the armies of the maharajahs – the Moghuls, the Persians, and the British – India’s people saw that the intruders were fairer still, and after hundreds of years, many marriages, and other reproductive liaisons, fair skin remains a sign of power, beauty, and success. “We live with prejudiced mindsets where the fate of a newborn is decided by the color of her skin,” admits Ramnath Agarwal, just one of the new voices to speak against the fairness cult that India has become.

Modern women caught up in ancient prejudices

Fair, wheatish, dusky, and dark, India’s men and women value only one skin color distinction. “The modern Indian woman is independent, in charge — and does not have to live with her dark skin,” revealed a headline in the NY Times in 2007. Apparently, the modern woman is as dissatisfied with her genetically driven skin color as her ancestors were, Today, however, she has a magic potion. It may not be healthy, it may not be politically correct, it may be ill-advised, but with the collusion of global beauty and cosmetics corporations, India’s women, and lately, even her men, are seeking the fairness that has become as much an aspiration as higher degrees and financial success.

Cory Wallia, a renowned Bollywood makeup artists, advances the unfortunate opinion that “While no one suspects that Westerners seek tans to change their ethnicity, Indians, he says, are motivated essentially to do just that.””Indians are more racist with other Indians than any American ever was with his slaves,” Wallia says. “The desire for whiteness has very little to do with beauty.””

The irony of simultaneously promoting both a fairness bias and women’s empowerment

The final painful irony says Aneel Karnani is that the same cosmetics corporations that are complicit in this anathema by selling bleaching and whiteners to the millions to women desirous of skin and identity change, subsequently tout themselves as “Doing well by doing good” corporations. They use a tiny portion of their profits to establish “women’s empowerment programs”. Karnani maintains that, “The way to truly empower a woman is to make her less poor, financially independent, and better educated; social and cultural changes also need to occur that eliminate the prejudices that are the cause of her deprivations. If she was truly empowered, she would probably refuse to buy a skin whitener in the first place.”

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