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Fairness Creams May Change Their Un-‘Fair’ Names But Will They Change Our Mindsets?

Posted: November 12, 2020

Are sales of fairness creams and products as simple as ‘need meets demand’? Or do they fan an evil social practice of colour discrimination?

Colour discrimination has been a large part of society for far too long.  Embedded deep in our culture, it is not only disguised in our daily interactions but also etched into our subconscious. Addressing this issue is long overdue.

However, in India, we took notice of things only when a movement like #blacklivesmatter happened far away from our country. While we joined the bandwagon a little late, it was good to see brands and celebrities, who’d endorsed fairness products being called out for feeding the prejudices of the society.

HUL’s Fair & Lovely was under the scanner after they decided to continue with the product in question and dropped the word ‘fair.’ They even decided to remove words like ‘whitening’ and ‘lightening’ that indicated a fairness-led transformation.

The whole stance seems compromised

Since there was no mention of the change in the ‘product composition,’ I am assuming it will remain the same. So, the same product is being sold under the promise of ‘even tone, skin clarity and radiance.’

While some welcomed this change, I strongly feel it was a half-hearted effort, just for the books. In an era where being ethical and authentic have emerged as attributes that matter most for brands, HUL’s stance seems compromised. The whole thing seems very untrue to the cause of inclusiveness and celebration of all skin colour.

On the other hand, to show solidarity with the ongoing protests against racism and stereotypes targeting the dark skin tone, some other steps were taken too. J&J decided to stop selling fairness products in India and Shaadi.com removed skin tone filter on their site.

Rightly so, it is 2020 and about time we stop celebrating‘ fair skin.’ It is time to reflect on the role of brands in our society and define a vision to remain relevant in a new marketplace and resilient for a new world.

So how did we reach this stage?

While I question the need for fairness creams and similar products, people argue saying that it caters to the needs of the society. Since there is a huge demand for fairness products, these brands fill these gaps. It gives people the choice to make their skin look the way they want.

Yes, one shouldn’t be denied the right to their choice of skin colour. However, it is important to understand where the ‘need’ comes from? Is it rooted in the social belief ‘fair is beautiful?’

In our quest to look fair, are we simply trying to ‘fit’ within the beauty standard society have created? It’s surprising how a country which predominantly has dark-skin is obsessed with fair skin? 

According to me, the obsession with fair-skin may have set its foot during colonization. The British were white-skinned while, we, the servers, were dark-skinned. That is how the concept of white-skin being superior and dark-skin being inferior was formed.

It may have started earlier too!

However, there is a possibility that this bias started even before colonization. A time when fair-skinned merchants and traders from Persia, Portugal and Afghanistan established a strong presence in India.

At the same time, India’s age-old Ayurveda science also has many references on how to make one’s skin colour light. These have been followed by women through centuries.

Whatever may be the starting point it won’t be wrong to say, the fair skin bias was perpetuated and strongly reinforced by colonialism. The idea that fair is superior was embedded deep within the psyche of people, not just in India but across the world.

Is it ‘need meets demand’? Or something else?

Taking advantage of this, globalization now is spreading the bias worldwide. Let’s take a pause and go through this again. Our society suffers from stigma about dark skin and has rigid perceptions that correlate lighter skin with beauty and personal success. Thus, we have multinational cosmetic brands capitalising on this belief and building a lucrative market.

Is it as simple as ‘need meets demand’? Or is it fanning an evil social practice of colour discrimination? This is a social practice that is one of the most dysfunctional issues in society.

Every brand is, in some way or the other, a part of society and the culture. Culture and brands are inextricably linked. A brand looks actively and purposefully at the culture buzzing around and uses that to position and integrate into the world of the consumer.

While it is imperative for a brand to tap into the culture, how far should it go to normalise prejudices of a society to make money? According to a report, global spend on skin lightening products is projected to triple to $31.2bn (£24bn) by 2024.

This simply means, brands have successfully managed to get people to favour ‘fair skin,’ by creating a fake narrative of self-confidence and inner beauty. This is not engendering bias any more, it is inciting racism.

Brands have a responsibility towards what they promote

When a brand provides something that the consumer wants, desires, or needs, consumers emotionally connect with brands. This emotional bond makes people believe the narrative that a brand creates. Thus, it is important for brands to be responsible about the message it propagates. This message has the power to influence people’s thoughts and beliefs. The lines are blurred between corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, and marketing hence a brand is expected to have a voice.

This gives rise to another very important question, as a society should we only rely on a brand to change or influence our perspective? What about social reforms? Bias towards skin complexion starts at home, school and later society.

Parents must attempt to protect their children from discrimination through their approach to parenting. They need to ensure that a child is not ashamed of how they look while growing up. Education in schools is another tool that can eradicate such practices from society.

Youth should be sensitised to accept individuals the way they are. They should be made to realise that discrimination on the basis of colour is something that even our constitution doesn’t accept. A balanced society will be able to confront discrimination or even reject a product that induces disparity.

Isn’t it time this changed?

It’s the classic Catch 22 situation in action, should a brand unapologetically cater to the needs of society? Or should a society rise above its existing biases and snub brands that consciously or unconsciously justify an expression of prejudice?

In my opinion, the responsibility lies in each one of us. For every member of this society brands, are an integral part. Along with brands, other stakeholders like brand ambassadors, advertising and media agencies all should reject biases in society.

So as the rectification starts from our houses. In the context of dynamic socio-cultural change, brands should also adopt an approach that brings together the power of business to design new offerings and stories. These stories often shape our aspirations, behaviours, and relationships for a more just and sustainable future.

Picture credits: Fair and Lovely’s ad on YouTube

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Brand Strategist. Storyteller. Movie buff. Love rain, poetry and Coke Studio Pakistan, in no particular

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