Shades of grey – The Unfair Selection…The Indian obsession for white skin.

Shades of grey – The Unfair Selection…The Indian obsession for white skin.

The Indian obsession for white skin and dropping ‘Fair’ from the brand name of a fairness cream…is it too little too late!

Ramdas Shenoyy talks to women from the glamour industry on the fair skin obsession.

We find many Indian’s supporting #BlackLivesMatter but when it comes to our own obsession of the fair skin, it is a multi-billion dollar industry which thrives on different shades of fairness. In fact the advertisements and the products also have shade cards the way the painting industry follows. The kind of trauma generations had to go through thanks to British legacy where somewhere it is deep rooted in the Indian psyche that White are our masters and black means weak, poor, and except for toilet paper we have all other pure products showcased as white.

The biggest dilemma is even with our gods– Lord Krishna, when they try to show it in movies or Television is not shown as black but ….blue…Which human form will be ‘blue in color’. Though people will bow down to Kali maa, how many of them would really want to marry a dark skinned person as their life partner.

Also the kind of obsession we have for body shaming is very normal in India. Every school and class will have a lambu(tall), a chotu(short), a gora(fair), a kali(dark), a Motu(fat) and a Patlu(Thin)…we even have a animation feature named ‘Motu-Patlu’ and this is all normal for us.

We at stirfrymba spoke to 5 women from the modelling, acting, grooming and marketing domains and try to garner their views on the subject.

The colour perception– deep rooted in the skin of Indian society – how to address it.

As per Mariette Valsan, one of India’s Top faces in the modelling world feels that It’s a long and arduous process. She is sure there are many ways, but the primary is-conversation and education. “For most they do not even realise that they have deep seated prejudice, and therefore it is constant discussion, listening to experiences and developing empathy is paramount says Mariette.

Bia Sandhu, Image consultant from Bengalaru feels that the thought process  in India has always favoured fair skin and looked down upon dark skin, but feels it is a global phenomenon.

Neeleshwari Basask, Founder of Worldwide Institute of Grooming & Pageants ( WIGP), has a view that society also needs to understand this as a matter of grave concern; and stop traumatizing the dark-skinned girls and women. For manifesting true structural shifts, it has to be a multi-frontal effort, starting at the school and family levels, eventually progressing from communities towards the country and, ultimately, global spheres.

“Raising the bar of the Awareness level of masses from Body-centric Consciousness to Soul-Consciousness” is one ever-lasting means to uproot the color perception about the skin of Indian society”, adds Neeleshwari.

At micro level, Social Media Promotions, Influencers, Bloggers can cause gradual transformation in people’s perception by publicly addressing and positively voicing on the subject.

Geetika Vidya Ohlyan an Indian Theatre practioner and film actor has a solution view that by broadening our perspectives to understand the true meaning and value of good health.

“We make cultures, and to reshape those cultures we have to change ourselves. The entire human race needs a new school curriculum. Education ministries need to look into what are the kids being turned into ? Employers , employees , manufacturers and customers ? Can we have a curriculum that shapes  kids into thinkers , philosophers , historians , academicians who are then listened to by those who make policy decisions? asks Geetika. The new age education policy recently launched by the Government …whether it can handle this – only time will tell.

Unilever’s move of rebranding Fair and Lovely! is it too little too late??

On this Mariette feels that, it’s definitely come on the back of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. While we have been talking about it for a long time , true change hasn’t been made. She feels this is a bit of a cosmetic change, but to then introduce real change, the brand needs to pump in real money to educate and inform people about colourism, to bring in real change at the grassroot level.

The fairness cosmetics industry is a huge business in India, worth almost US$180 million, and growing at a rate of 10% to 15% annually (Shevde, 2008). Underlying the growing popularity of skin-lightening or fairness cosmetics in India is one of the most baseless color-biases experienced and practiced feels Neeleshwari.

Consequently, the message implied is “Skin-lightening is the key to our success in all spheres of life.” One can find means to lighten each and every part of the body. The latest addition to the list is whitening creams for one’s private areas.

Geetika reiterates that Ours being a country with the largest population of youth, if the entire youth rejects a product the manufacturer would herself choose a new product for her business. As long as the demand exists, many Unilevers would be ready to cater to it.

“It is the citizen that needs to know it’s power and responsibility be it at a shops counter or at the polling booth. You get what you ask for ! “ adds Geetika

What are the challenges of being accepted as a dusky model– and is it easier for the fair skin?

The challenges are different for different models in the profession, but as a dusky skinned model there has been prejudice at many levels. Mariette while sharing her experience tells that “Many a time, we don’t even get allows into the audition room for a fair chance, as the brand has already decided that it is only a fairer skin tone that should represent their brand. Then sometimes, in the audition room, the casting directors are prejudiced and don’t allow darker Skinned actors/.models to test for certain roles. Or maybe at the client level. So there are many levels to a decision of when a job is finalised and prejudice can take over at any point. This all comes on the back of the inherent idea that fairer skin is better” concluding with the hrash reality of the media.

Bia takes us to the 90’s when , till the late 90s we had no dark skinned models on the ramp or on prints .. Lakshmi Menon came in the late 90s and changed the whole mindset of the Indian fashion world when she became an international sensation.

Neeleshwari is of the opinion that the entire paraphernalia of Film, Glamour and Media Industry is geared to projecting & emblazoning fair skinned models and actors; be it Facial Cosmetic Make up, Photography, Play of lights; & much more. Film stock, digital camera sensors, lenses and lighting equipment have been covertly designed for white skin. It ought to be a subject of debate…

Geetika being a fair skinned person says, “I have never been told my skin tone is a problem irrespective of what class, caste or profession my character represents. I have played a myriad classes from sub inspector in police (Soni ) , Delhi Metro Train Ticket Seller ( BarahByBarah) to H.R. head (Custody ) to a C.E.O of a multinational company ( Nawab ) to a domestic servant (Thappad).  I however know that my friends with dark skin tones have heard illogical reasons for them to not be cast as characters from an affluent background”.

Some stories in the society which creates this colour supremacy in the business world

Bia recalls about her celebrity photographer friend Lucky Malhotra who started a campaign “It’s not Fair “ #ItsNotFair where he has captured some beautiful women from all walks of life . This campaign was started by him when his daughter asked him Why her friend was so fair.

“I see post-colonial hangover as one of the big reasons . It also amuses me to look at the representation of deities of us, brown skinned people as white skinned beings . Apart from that, lyrics of popular songs and texts of stories are full of references of fairness being counted as a sign of beauty” says Geetika.

Neeleshwari attributes too to British colonialism which favored light-skinned Indians for government jobs. With the passage of time, colorism has been exacerbated by caste, religion, regional and geographical differences, and numerous other factors. Basically, fairer skin is considered synonymous not just with beauty, but also with superiority, power, and status.

Colour has moved from female to male gender too…Fair and Handsome? With regards to colors are brands gender-neutral?

“In terms of colour discrimination, I feel brands end up targeting women a bit more because there is an idea that they will be more invested in the way that they look and tie that to direct money earned by brands..but men are a constant target of this discrimination as well , with now products like fair and handsome working on telling men that they are inadequate because of the colour of their skin” feels Mariette.

Neeleshwari coming from the grooming world feels that today, the market offers fairness creams, face washes, and makeup for both genders. Most advertisements carry an implicit message that darkness is the root of all women’s (and now men’s) problems. The implied message is “fair is lovely and dark is ugly.”

With movements like #BlackLivesMatter supported in India, we have color discrimination on all fronts of life which are showcased liberally by media, is it a hypocrisy ?

Mariette knows what she talks, she thinks that, it’s a product of ignorance and the fact that the money has not been given to the movements that have been fighting for equality.. economics talks, and if brand switch money work on changing perception, society will follow. But also, if change is coming about and society reduces spending on these products  brands will be forced to rethink their products and strategies. Like in the case of fair and lovely. 

Bia questions the role of the Media  in colour discrimination ..”if they filter the correct information to the public it can really change the mindset of the common people .. they should not be displaying fair and lovely kind of ads .. how many times have we seen a dark skinned media presenter, she questions.

Neeleshwari feels that although we have started to address some aspects of this situation, we still have a long way to go. At the same time, a big Indian matchmaking website,, has decided to remove a filter that allowed people to select partners based on skin tone.

As a young model, what is your vision for skin color in the new Indian market?

“I think that now brands will scramble to be more inclusive. But I sincerely hope that it is more than tokenism. We need diverse representation in all quarters, not just as the face of the brand but in the boardroom as well , so that thinking can change beyond tokenism”, concludes Mariette.

The Jury’s verdict – Rashi Goel, Director Marketing and Consumer Communications, Nestle India

It takes a tragedy of epic proportions to make mankind realize how deeply dysfunctional an irrational belief about a segment of society being superior to another really is. The second world war and the crimes against Jews finally sensitized entire mankind to race politics. But 200 years of slave trade has embedded discrimination against Africans so deeply that the apartheid movement, the good work done by Martin Luther King, and even having a black American president did not staunch hate crimes against black Americans. 

In 2020, not just Americans, but the entire world has risen for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This has created enough social proof that it has forced brands to take a stance against color discrimination based messaging. Social Media has made it easy to call out and hold those people accountable, who are propagating or even  subtly lending credence to race and skin color based rhetoric. 

It is this movement that has forced Hindustan Unilever to change the name of its decades old brand Fair and lovely, to Glow and Lovely. This is a move that has been fueled by race sensitivity. 

Having said this, the need for fairer skin in India still exists that is why the product has still not been discontinued. And rightly so. Brands are in the business of delivering what the consumer wants in order to make profit and deliver business growth for the employees and economy. The stock market and shareholders are tough masters.  If a brand does not deliver profit its existence is under question. 

Fair and Lovely did not invent the need for fair skin. It did not propagate racial politics based marketing. All Fair and Lovely did was to meet the needs of millions of consumers who felt more self-confident, experienced a higher level of self-esteem when it was needed the most. Wanting fair skin is not different from a woman with straight hair desiring  curly hair and vice versa.   

If there are enough masses that desire a certain standard of beauty, the brand will cater to it. As long as enough consumers  believe that a certain look, a certain kind of hair, a certain kind of nose and a certain kind of dress is attractive and it gives them confidence, then brands will have to continue to offer those goods and services. 

If we have to debate the Hindustan Unilever name change of Fair and Lovely let us for that matter also debate plastic surgery, perming products, hair straightening products, tanning products, rhinoplasty, liposuction, white teeth, height boosting shoes and so many others products and services that have been created to cater to generally accepted standards of beauty for both men and women.

#BlackLivesMatter,#FairandLovely,#MarietteValsan#biasandhu,#NeeleshwariBasak #WIGPOfficial #WorldwideInstituteOfGrooming&Pageants #parfaitimageconsulting #geetikavidya #rashigoel #thappad #Soni #HUL #Nestle

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