It was as a teenager attending boarding school in India that I first heard of a product called “Fair and Lovely.” Fair and Lovely is a cream made by Unilever to lighten dark skin. Our working-class, dark-skinned matron, who is an adult, residential advisor-like figure, used it.

Jessica Boullion
Devadatta Gandhi

Although the school encouraged free thought and open-mindedness more than most Indian educational institutions, India’s long tradition of color- and class-based prejudices proved difficult to shake. Fair-skinned students were generally considered more attractive, and I once witnessed a fellow student using the words “poor” and “black” as insults directed at another student.

India’s obsession with “fairness” is regrettably directed more at striving for lighter skin than egalitarianism. The origins of India’s worship of light skin are complicated, and while some cite the legacy of colonialism, others argue that the phenomenon has been a part of Indian culture for hundreds of years. In recent years, though, the skin-tone issue has been fueled by the global cosmetics industry, which ruthlessly exploits the insecurities, misconceptions and prejudices of millions of Indians.

The Fair and Lovely website proudly flashes the slogan, “Guaranteed Fairness. Guaranteed Fame.” A 2003 Women’s E-News report details that Fair and Lovely’s marketing spans more than 38 countries. The ads typically show a depressed woman finding a boyfriend or getting a job thanks to the newfound beauty that the product gives her. On its website the company calls it “the miracle worker.”

Women’s E-News pointed out that other American and European companies eagerly seized this marketing opportunity too. Brands such as L’Oreal, Lancome, Yves Saint-Laurent, Clinique, Estee Lauder and Revlon rushed to bring whitening products to India. Subsequently, the Delhi-based Center for Advocacy and Research accused the industry of “unfair trade practices” and “using a social stigma to sell their products.”

The New York Times reported that Fair and Lovely has changed its advertising focus from the problems that a dark-skinned woman might face when trying to find romance to a message that lighter skin enables women to obtain jobs conventionally held by men. It also reports that 60 to 65 percent of Indian women use these products daily. According to research by the Euromonitor International, skincare is now a $318-million market in India, having grown by more than 42 percent since 2001.

A potentially dangerous consequence of this increase in use, as the Times points out, is that lightening products can damage the skin if overused. This is particularly true if the products contain hydroquinone, a compound that reduces melanin, but can leave permanent dark spots if used excessively.

But the Fair and Lovely phenomenon is only one example of the cosmetic industry’s irresponsibility. A strong case has been made that even India’s multiple successes in global beauty pageants – with, for instance, light-skinned Indians winning Miss World and Miss Universe competitions – are driven by the cosmetic industry’s marketing goals.

In America too, consumers are not immune from such pressures. I have always found the L’Oreal “Because You’re Worth It” ad bothersome. Perhaps the ad campaign can be seen as empowering, with its implication that every woman has the right to look her best. But I see it as a blatantly unethical attempt to induce consumers to buy unnecessary products. Being “worth it” and buying L’Oreal products have nothing important in common.

Perhaps there will be no lasting solution without a change in attitudes toward beauty and what it means. But even while consumer demand shows no sign of dissipating, companies that peddle hope and a better future on the backs of false promises should be made to live up to their obligations. Any dubious claims or public health hazards should be vigorously prosecuted, with better government regulation needed at the outset.

Unilever’s Malaysia website claims that, “We aim to make a positive impact . through our brands . and through the various other ways in which we engage with society.” Unethical advertising and preying on human weaknesses do not help this goal.

Devadatta Gandhi can be reached at debu@umich.edu.

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