Fairness Cream

Jezebel had a piece up about a feminine wash being marketed in India designed to make your lady parts more appealing by bleaching them whiter, because obviously that is a fear that you should have, that your vulva is not white enough (not really, and for the record if someone tells you vulva is not white enough you should stop having sex with them immediately.) On the piece they linked to a piece from an advertising executive. I have quoted it here for your reading pleasure:

“My biggest breakthrough on human behaviour (which comes from decades of studying characters in plays by Shakespeare and Arthur Miller) was Fair & Handsome, a fairness cream launched as recently as 2005 by Emami. Here, I discovered that the Indian male is as vain as the female when it comes to his looks and attractiveness to the opposite sex. Hindustan Lever’s Fair & Lovely, which had led this fairness market for decades, had been sleeping over this vital clue.

It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. What they should do is take a deep breath and think again. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer—so what’s the problem? I don’t think any Youngistani today thinks the British Raj/White man is superior to us Brown folk. That’s all 1947 thinking!

The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness, is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly. This is because her complexion reflects more light. I found this amazing difference when I directed Kabir Bedi, who is very fair and had to wear dark makeup for Othello, the Black hero of the play. I found I had to have a special spotlight following Kabir around the stage because otherwise the audience could not see his expressions.

When you have experience like I have—about 50 years in advertising and more in theatre—then you realise that a lot of people don’t talk out of experience, they talk out of book knowledge. They say, “Oh my God, fairness creams… are they saying that Indians are not as good as Europeans?” It’s nothing to do with that.

I find the quoted text quite humorous, this man is being willfully obtuse but then again he does specialise in marketing products designed to capitalise on the insecurities of the masses.  I love how the thinks he is a genius for figuring out that dudes are vain. I do not love how he ignores literal centuries of structural oppression on race, class and caste lines in order to compare fairness creams to lipstick.

The notion that no one thinks white people are superior in India today is hilarious. After traveling through India with my white husband and witnessing the way he was treated in comparison to other people I can safely say that this is not true. Even if it was true, this is not really the point. In order to sell a fairness cream you have to create a standard of beauty or tap into one that already exists culturally. In this case the notion of fairness as being beautiful is deeply entrenched in Indian culture. Why is fairness considered more beautiful?  There are a range of complicated reasons relating to race, class and caste. The power of the Birtish raj is one aspect of it, so to as the dominance of the generally lighter skinned north, as do the types of jobs that tend to result in darker skin. Encouraging people to fairness cream is essentially  perpetuating these prejudices. Fairness cream marketing relies on creating and/or sustaining a preference for fairness over darkness and by doing so is deeply damaging.  Providing a product that services a need that is grounded in deeply damaging prejudices and stereotype is not a value neutral act. In the same way that peddling lipstick in a manner that positions it as a necessity for all women no matter what their personal preferences are is not a value neutral act.




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