It isn’t just a misplaced opinion on Twitter or lack of diversity in an advertising campaign. Fair & Lovely (F&L) is a brand name. It implies that only fair skin is beautiful. The advertisements over the years reflect this thought. Being gori can get you a husband, a job, an audition or an award. The message is loud and clear: you can either spend years in toil because of your dark complexion or get an instant upgrade with fairness cream.
The rough script of one F&L advertisement shows several dancers auditioning on stage.
‘You,’ the director points towards the light skinned girl, ‘in the centre.’
‘Aur tum, side mein [and you, to the side],’ he says to the dark girl.
The disappointed girl sits down. And when her friend asks why she wasn’t selected despite her talent, she replies: ‘Amavasya sa chehra jo hai.’ If you didn’t understand what that meant, let me spell it out for you: the girl says she didn’t get selected because she has the complexion of a moonless night. This advertisement is from 2017.
Tone-deaf advertising seems to be the hallmark of fairness creams. Let’s not forget the rampant homophobia and sexism seen in the Fair & Handsome advertisement with Shah Rukh Khan. The setting is the obviously masculine pahalwan akhada [wrestling ring]. As Khan spots a wrestler applying fairness cream, he goes on a rampage. “Aaj ladkiyon wali fairness creams aur phir nail polish aur lipstick.” It implies that once you start using a fairness cream meant for women, it is only a matter of time before you apply lipstick and nail polish.
Even though the world is going through a period of collective outrage, somehow, we’re satisfied with this miniscule step. The decision to drop ‘Fair’ from the brand name is lauded as ‘incredible’, ‘exemplary’, and ‘the start of something new’. Allow me to remind you about the last time we manufactured a revolutionary beauty phrase. Remember when Dove coined the term ‘pro-age’, to counter ‘anti-ageing’? How did that change things? When was the last time you looked for a pro-ageing serum? More than a decade after the pro-age ‘movement’, we have the rise of the Instagram face. With cyborg-like features achieved with a potent mix of Botox, fillers, cheek implants, overdrawn brows, lips and a sculpted nose, it is the anti-thesis of real beauty or accepting your age.
Words mean absolutely nothing; they’re just another way to revive an outdated product so it fits into the current context. Not that fairness is an outdated concept. Not by a mile. Let’s not forget that F&L is Unilever’s highest-grossing product, built on our obsession with light skin. I’ve lost count of the number of requests I’ve get for tan-removal face masks. Celebrity transformations in India and abroad, including Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Kajol and Shilpa Shetty, who have become fairer with increasing fame, only serve to heighten insecurities. The attraction towards fairness is so deeply ingratiated in our very genes that just the dropping of one word will not suffice. In today’s world of political correctness and cancel culture, dropping ‘Fair’ should only be seen as a genius marketing plan and nothing more.
As I write this piece, green beauty founder Josh Rosebrook explains to his followers why he used the word ‘detox’ for his charcoal mask. Instead of wasting time arguing whether the word is misleading, let us ask some real questions. Like why use a 21-year-old to model an eye cream meant for women in their 60s? Point out the hypocrisy of a breast cancer charity by a company selling products with suspected carcinogens. And in this case, what concrete steps will Fair & Lovely take to undo years of damage to hope and self-esteem?
Neither the pro-age ‘movement’ nor this current name change will transform the way we view ourselves. Women will continue to feel bad as long as celebrities, influencers, brands and magazines push unrealistic, photo-shopped images. Politically-correct names and phrases only create space for such products to exist. Unless Unilever shows the same amount of fervour to promote darkness as they did to promote fairness — use dark-skinned models in beauty campaigns, and reformulate this cream to really suit the needs of Indian women — I will not be impressed.