One hashtag, three words: #unfairandlovely. Although the phrase seems minimal, the “Unfair and Lovely” campaign, started by University of Texas student Pax Jones, is a critical spin on the Indian Fair and Lovely skin lightening product line. By encouraging darker skinned Asian women to celebrate their natural skin color, the campaign directly attacks the popular practice of skin lightening in many countries, especially Asia and Southeast Asia.
Founded in 1973 in India, the Fair and Lovely skincare line offers a variety of skin creams and makeup products infused with niacinamide, a melanin suppressor. And this brand represents only a fraction of the large skin lightening market: In 2013, the industry earned $400 million in Indian sales, surpassing domestic profits by the Coca Cola Company. Affordable, small sized skincare kits have contributed to significant gains in the rural market while the 2005 creation of a male Fair and Lovely line also expanded the product’s consumer base.
And the appeal is not restricted to India. In nearby countries, such as China and Korea, there are similar skin cosmetic lines, and Japan is predicted to be the next largest global consumer base for this market. This aesthetic preference for white skin appears elsewhere — such as Asian home remedies of eating “skin whitening foods,” like apple, gingko, and lemon, and fad products, including a chlorine based soap in Thailand and a Chinese Casio camera that includes lightened skin color filters. The cosmetic industry in Asia is predicted to grow due to ever increasing demand from an increasingly urbanized, middle age, and middle class population. According to a Medgadget report, the cosmeceuticals industry, dominated by skincare, should expect “double digit growth” within the next couple of years. More specifically, the skin lightening market is estimated to reach a 19.8 billion dollar value by 2018.
While some products like niacinamide work by preventing melanin growth, other mercury-based products consisting of hydroquinone are both the cheapest and the riskiest to use. These creams can burn away flesh, creating allergic reactions and painful patches of light and dark skin. Among other detrimental health effects, hydroquinone greatly increases the likelihood of adrenal problems and cancer. For these reasons, the EU banned hydroquinone from cosmetics in 2001, but the drug still appears in underground markets. For instance, after testing a sample of celebrity-endorsed creams, the New Delhi Centre for Science and Environment discovered that 44 percent contained mercury. Furthermore, the listing of many of these products as cosmetics rather than steroids or drugs due to loose legal classifications is extremely problematic as consumers are often unaware of accompanying health risks.
The issue can’t simply be attributed to ignorance, though. The white-skinned aesthetic is deeply entrenched in Asian and South Asian culture and is closely tied to social capital. Historically, in Southeast Asian societies, whiter complexions were perceived to indicate nobility, higher social status, and increased education levels in comparison with the darker skin of the peasantry and working class. In Hinduism, this model even extends to the caste system; the higher caste Brahmins are typically light skinned while the lower, “impure” Dalit class is relatively darker skinned. The historical introduction of Western cultures also may have shaped this trend as well. Past colonizers, such as the British, were light skinned and enforced this ideal, constructing a cultural association between whiteness and power.
This link between skin color and social capital still persists to this day. In advertising campaigns for Fair and Lovely, the company links external fairness with social mobility and empowerment. Their website states the product “provided hope” and improves “how…the world see them [women].” And skin color does indeed factor into how women are perceived in many countries. For instance, public ads for arranged marriages have asked for prospective brides to be fair skinned, and marriage websites will list “light skin” as a highly desirable aspect. Once these women are ready to start a family, this concern about skin color only intensifies. Many females are fearful that their children will be darker skinned and a social liability. In one study of a maternity ward, almost seventy percent of prospective mothers were using skin-lightening products. About half had increased their intake due to the pregnancy, perhaps believing the practice would influence the color of their newborn’s skin.
Today, popular media portrayals have further emphasized a skin color based ideal among conventionally attractive characters. Not only are most Bollywood actors already lighter skinned, film actors have confirmed that light skinned characteristics are prerequisites in order to play “successful city characters.” Darker skinned individuals meanwhile are relegated to the limited, “slum dweller” character category. Many actors, models, and other public figures also promote this complexion by appearing in skin lightening product advertisements. This beauty ideal has become so normalized that when Nina Davuluri won Miss America in 2013, native Indian media outlets criticized her darker appearance, arguing she would not have won the title in India.
Fortunately, individuals from the regions in question have begun speaking out against the beauty trend. In 2014, the fairness industry faced a backlash against the new “Clean & Dry” campaign for whitening products for female genital regions; the heavily criticized advertisement featured a wife who received attention from her husband only after she used the product. Similarly, a Thai advertisement displaying a crestfallen female stating, “If I were white I would win,” was eventually pulled after accusations of racism.
Movements incorporating local actors seem to be the most effective thus far. For instance, following the Dove “Real Women” ad campaign’s debut in Asian, Chinese women still responded unfavorably to different skin colors. On the other hand, once Dove began a strategic partnership with the popular “Ugly Wudi” Chinese television show, the results were much more successful. By pinpointing television, a widely used media outlet for the Chinese, and by integrating “Real Beauty” messages throughout the script, the company was able to promote cultural change in a manner that was well received by the Chinese public. This gradual attitude shift would be aided by further partnerships with prominent pop culture figures. More celebrities could take after Indian actress Kalki Koechlin, who has spoken out against her Bollywood peers for promoting skin lightening products. In Thailand, famous rapper Joey Boy has created a new magazine, TAN, which has set the goal to actively promote tan, darker skin. Such actions follow a precedent set by the Indian organization, Women of Worth’s 2009 “Dark is Beautiful” campaign, which uses visual art, literature, and other media to disseminate dark-skin embracing messages.
It will take measures that address popular opinion, rather than simply changes in legislation, to alter this practice. Although some countries, such the Ivory Coast, have officially banned skin lightening, in these situations the practice is still wildly accepted and has moved underground. Luckily, the current displays of protest indicate a developing trend against not only skin lightening; at a more basic level, movements like “Unfair and Lovely” are working to sever the link between external appearance and human capital. This idea is something everyone can embrace. Rather than striving for a societally constructed, unhealthy ideal, we can move towards realizing a new ideal — one in which a person’s power, socio-economic standing, and worth is not determined by appearance.
Photo by Adam Jones