In the dark: what is behind India’s obsession with skin whitening?

The advertising of skin whitening products has shifted from the downright offensive to the consciously discreet, but the range on offer keeps proliferating.

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Growing up in South Asia, I would regularly find a particular beauty product on my grandmother’s dresser. It came in glossy pink packaging and was called “Fair & Lovely”. My grandmother must have been 50 when I first watched her carefully extracting the softly-perfumed white cream from the pink tube and gently massaging it onto her face. It was one of the earliest beauty products on the market that was meant to enhance fairness of complexion.

My grandmother is almost 70 now, and I still find mutilated tubes of the same “Fair & Lovely” in different compartments of her handbag. The colour of the packaging has changed from glossy pink to a sophisticated, and fitting, white, while my grandmother’s application of the product has evolved from just a face cream to a sun-block, lip balm, foot cream and all-purpose moisturiser. What has not changed, however, is the premise of the product’s marketing campaign, which still states that fairness of skin equates to loveliness of personality. Yet even after 20 years of Fair & Lovely usage, my grandmother’s face seems to have turned three shades darker.

The Indian fairness cream industry is worth around $450m. Fair & Lovely, marketed by the consumer goods behemoth Hindustan Unilever, has more than a 50 per cent share of the market. The BBC once reported that in South Asia more skin lightening creams are sold than bottles of Coca Cola. GIA market research has predicted that the global skin lightening industry will reach $10bn by 2015, led by the growth in India and China.

But fairness products are no longer targeted solely at women. In 2005, Fair & Lovely’s rival company launched India’s first fairness cream for men, interestingly titled “Fair and Handsome”. The marketing campaign suggested that men would no longer need to secretly use their sister’s fairness products. Fair and Handsome, endorsed by one of India’s most popular movie stars, was an immediate success.

Fairness products seem like such an obvious business model. Having whiter skin is aspirational for many. Or as the corporates would say, fairness of skin is a consumer want, and since markets are free, they will oblige and satisfy this burning demand with gracious supply.

What is the problem with skin lightening products, other than the offensive names and resulting addiction? The psychological and medical implications are much too evident to ignore. Young boys and girls with darker complexions grow up with lower self-confidence, which often impacts their personal and professional success. Several fairness products have reportedly been banned in countries including Ivory Coast and South Africa for having a high incidence of side effects – including the risk of skin cancer. I’ve heard horrifying stories of girls deliberately applying or injecting themselves with unregulated chemicals in a bid to appear a few shades lighter.

Nigerian pop musician Dencia launched a product called “Whitenicious” in 2014, which sold out immediately. She stated that getting a few shades lighter was a personal choice. That’s an argument repeated by every member of the fairness products industry. But the choice no longer remains personal when it has been subconsciously imposed by generations of social conditioning and has the potential to harm the physical and mental wellbeing of the very individual who champions its cause.

While I support freedom of trade, freedom of markets and freedom of every kind that I dare or dare not imagine, I am bothered by one question. Should the freedom to make money also extend to the freedom to exploit such societal prejudices and aggravate inequalities? Or should freedom come with some responsibility?

In 2014, India’s skin whitening industry shocked all when it launched a product called “Clean & Dry” that was intended to whiten a woman’s intimate parts. The advertisement, which naturally caused a furore, suggested that a woman would have a more fulfilling personal life if she chose to lighten more than just her face. The incident seemed to awaken the authorities. Later that year the Advertising Standards Council of India issued a memo ordering that any advertisement that “reinforces negative stereotypes based on colour” would effectively be banned.

The advertisement did go off air.

On my recent travels to India, I noticed that the advertising of fairness products had metamorphosed from the downright offensive to the consciously discreet. Yet the choice of products available seemed to have proliferated, as had the number of movie stars, female and male, willing to endorse them.

That’s right, my favourite movie stars – role models for millions and the unfortunate vanguards of culture.

Unlike my grandmother, they are paid unimaginable figures for these endorsements without necessarily ever using the products. I may not take my grandmother’s recommendation seriously, but when my favourite movie star suggests that I purchase a particular carbonated drink, I do. When he suggests I donate to earthquake victims, I do. And if he suggests I lighten my complexion, well…