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The Dark Side of Fair & Lovely

By: Samah Atique

Picture this: A father suffering from money problems is seen lamenting over the fact that he doesn’t have a rich son to help him out. Now, switch to the image of his daughter who is pictured as poor, unhappy, and seemingly hopeless. No, not because her family is in crippling debt, but because her “dark” complexion is the apparent cause of this distress. Now imagine her conveniently reaching over to grab a bottle of Fair & Lovely, applying it to her face, and suddenly appearing 10 shades lighter. Seconds later, she is seen successfully landing a well-paying job as a flight attendant and single-handedly rescuing her family from crippling debt.    

This is an example of one of the many highly exaggerated and problematic commercials that has been aired to promote Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cosmetic product that was introduced in India in 1975. Not only is the advertisement above visibly sexist, but it also feeds in to the idealization of fair skin that permeates many South Asian regions. A considerable amount of the product’s advertisements follow the theme of lighter skinned men and women being happier, wealthier, and far more successful in their respective fields, both implicitly and explicitly promoting lighter skin as the ideal standard of beauty. 

In response to the brand, photographer Pax Jones launched the campaign #UnfairandLovely after she shot a photo series with her classmates Mirusha and Yanusha Yogarajah. The shoot focused on highlighting the two Sri Lankan sisters’ first-hand experience with colorism, or the discrimination against individuals with darker skin by others that are typically within the same racial or ethnic group. The series pushes back against the notion that beauty and success are defined by the color of one’s skin and encourages media platforms to increase their positive portrayal of darker skinned models. Unfair and Lovely challenges viewers to see these women as anything but the beautiful, confident, powerful, and capable beings they really are. It boldly celebrates the beauty of dark skin that many cosmetic brands fail to embrace. 

The idealization of fair skin in South Asian communities and abroad is largely a byproduct of residual colonialism and the prejudicial treatment of darker-skinned individuals by colonial forces. For example, in India the British rulers who held power typically chose people with lighter skin for higher-paying jobs and higher-ranking roles in society. This prompted the correlation between lighter skin and wealth, status, and one’s overall quality of life.

However, there is some action being taken to combat this issue. The Advertising Standards Council of India created new guidelines in 2014 which include that advertisements are not allowed to portray people as unhappy or disadvantaged in any way on the basis of their skin tone and should not associate skin color with any particular ethnicity or socio-economic class. Furthermore, the nation’s ministry of wealth and family welfare proposed an amendment to the 1954 Objectionable Advertisements Act earlier this year. The bill’s draft now extends to the advertising of products that promote fairness creams, making the practice punishable with up to 5 years of imprisonment. However, it is unclear how enforceable these regulations truly are. 

According to Global Industry Analysts, global spending on skin lightening is projected to increase to $31.2 billion by 2024. The motivating factor for this, they claim, is “the still rampant darker skin stigma and rigid cultural perception that correlates lighter skin tone with beauty and personal success.” Therefore, the market for skin bleaching creams and whitening products still remains successful in South Asian countries and beyond, and will likely remain successful at a global scale as long as these deeply-rooted beliefs remain.