Skin lighteners promise better jobs in India

// 30 May 2007

Hawkers of racist, skin-lightening creams in India are now telling women that lighter skin will help them get ahead in their careers, reports the New York Times.

Fair and Lovely, with packaging that shows a dark-skinned unhappy woman morphing into a light-skinned smiling one, once focused its advertising on the problems a dark-skinned woman might face finding romance. In a sign of the times, the company’s ads now show lighter skin conferring a different advantage: helping a woman land a job normally held by men, like announcer at cricket matches. “Fair and Lovely: The Power of Beauty,” is the tagline on the company’s newest ad.

I’m sort-of aghast. I suppose, if you’re willing to sell products that cater to racism and prejudice against women with darker skin tones, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump into advertising that uses gender progress to justify it.

The best thing that can be said about this Unilever campaign is that it admits to workplace inequities: women hit the glass ceiling, but women with a darker skin-tone will hit it faster and harder. It’s just amazing that the solution isn’t – sort out your racism, it’s – bleach!

Taking offense at the products is “a very Western way of looking at the world,” said Ashok Venkatramani, who is in charge of the skin care category at Unilever’s Indian unit, Hindustan Lever. “The definition of beauty in the Western world is linked to anti-aging,” he said. “In Asia, it’s all about being two shades lighter.”

Again: the message seems to be, ageism is a problem, so let’s forget about racism. Both are wrong. This also is the firm, remember, which runs the Real Beauty campaigns in the UK, which give out the message that age and beauty are far from incompatible.

“Half of the skin care market in India is fairness creams,” said Didier Villanueva, country manager for L’Oréal India, and 60 to 65 percent of Indian women use these products daily. L’Oréal entered this specific market four years ago with Garnier and L’Oréal products, but so far has a small market share, he said.

The idea of “glowing fairness” has nothing to do with colonialism, or idealization of European looks, Mr. Villanueva said. “It’s as old as India,” he said, and “deeply rooted in the culture.”

Just because it’s old, doesn’t make it any less of a case of discrimination. And the country manager for a firm which markets these creams is hardly going to admit to pandering to colonialism, is he?

The NYT only quotes a women’s group briefly, at the end of the article. I’d have liked to hear more from them:

The All India Democratic Women’s Association has been monitoring advertisements since the 1990s and gets particularly angry with ads that convey the message “if she is not fair in color, she won’t get married or won’t get promoted,” said Manjeet Rathee, a spokeswoman for the association’s media group. The current crop of television ads for fairness creams are “not as demeaning” as ones in the past, she said.

Photo by Mareen Fischinger, shared under a Creative Commons license

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