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Generations of young women were taught to live, love and be happy–just not in their brown skin.

It was the plop sound of the goopy cream, its silken texture and slight luminescence that called out to me on the days I felt ugly: a thin, white veneer of televised fable to put between my brown skin and its detractors. A tube of cream that was of great value to me because it was everywhere—on the radio, on billboards, in my aunt’s purse 611.4 miles away–everywhere, it seemed, except in our home. Until now.

I have a perplexingly fond memory of a sixty-second TV commercial that played incessantly in India in the early 2000s. In it, a retired father is upset that his wife won’t add more milk to his coffee—the milk is expensive, his wants excessive, and his daughter’s salary insufficient. He says out loud that he would have preferred to have had a son instead, since a daughter isn’t nearly as capable of providing for the family. His brown-skinned, salwar-kameez clad daughter overhears this. At first she’s upset, crying in bed, berating herself. But soon enough she finds a job listing for an air hostess and applies for it in the hope that landing the job will help prove her father wrong. In preparation for the interview, she uses a skin lightening cream—and it works. Her dark complexion is a thing of the past now, and she’s no longer demure. She puts on a baby pink skirt-suit and catwalks into the flight academy as wind-fans offscreen blow at her ample hair. The interviewers, impressed by her confidence and artificially enhanced glow, give her the job. Having moved up in life, she is able to buy her father coffee at a five-star hotel and all is well in telly-land.

That commercial was for a product called Fair & Lovely, a cream that purports to lighten dark skin when used every day for six weeks. It comes in a white tube embellished with pink swirls, and ranges in size from 80 gm tubes costing the equivalent of $2.12 to 9 gm sachets for about 10 cents. The front of the packaging had the before and after profiles of a model demonstrating how the cream worked. She was appropriately forlorn in the before image and then happy in the after image. It was a tube of that product, Fair & Lovely, that found its way into my house when I was in my early teenage years, about four years after the commercial first aired.

For me, like for many other Indians, a skin lightening product seemed like an elixir of improbable existence.

Our dark skin would, if we were to believe the commercials—and we did believe the commercials—forever relegate us to the realm of underachievers. Fair & Lovely, by being at the helm of a new industry of promised quick fixes, had poised itself as our messiah; and we would take any chance we got to escape our pathetic, seemingly pre-decided fate—that of failure in love and work.

When Fair & Lovely first broke into the Indian market in 1975, it faced very little competition. Speaking to my mom on the phone, she remembers the handful of cosmetics then available where she lived in Bangalore. Apart from Vaseline’s Petroleum Jelly and Ponds Cold Cream, she remembers a local ayurvedic cream called Vicco Turmeric. The latter was meant for acne treatment and general daily care, including turmeric-powered skin lightening—the ayurvedic use of turmeric being a hint that this longing could predate early capitalism. It was against the backdrop of product scarcity, where old fashioned and arguably uncool remedies were its only competition, that Fair & Lovely established itself. It quietly gathered the momentum needed to inspire an entire sub-genre of the skin care aisle, until, in 1991, India dismantled its socialist era regulations and the markets opened up. The economic liberalization brought with it a flood of new brands and products.

In the four and a half decades since its initial foray, Fair & Lovely has come to represent a brand of capitalism so foolproof, so perfect, that I can almost admire it. They figured out the formula, and how: prey on the insecurities of a newly empowered, melanin-rich economy, one scarred by a recent history of indenture, and ka-ching all the way to the bank.

As to whether or not the cream works, the quick answer is yes and no. The cream contains a chemical called niacinamide, otherwise known as Vitamin B3, which inhibits melanosome transfer, the process responsible for the degree of darkness or lightness of skin color. But only temporarily. Various studies, including one by a team of scientists at the University of Cincinnati in 2005, concluded that changes in pigmentation by the use of niacinamide were completely reversible.

Brand Equity Most Trusted Brands survey of 2012 found that Fair & Lovely was voted as the eleventh most trusted brand in India.

Even the temporary efficacy of the cream was called into question by another paper. Authors Monika Agarwal and Vandana Roy studied the chemical composition of three of the top grossing fairness cream brands in India in 2012. They concluded that only 15-25% of the ingredients in the creams could likely affect skin color. The percentage was so small that they came to doubt the potency of all three brands studied. The remaining quantities were composed of fillers, moisturizers and sunscreens.

Agarwal and Roy make a strongly worded call for reforms in their study:

  • that fairness creams modifying the body’s chemical processes, such as those reliant on melanin inhibitors, be brought under the category of a drug not a cosmetic as they are currently categorized
  • that scientific evidence regarding safety and efficacy should be made a regulatory requirement
  • and that if the cream acts by protecting skin from UV rays, it should be called a “sunscreen” that prevents further darkening, not something that lightens skin.

Finally, Agarwal and Roy make the following plea: “Promotion of the idea that fairness is good and gives you confidence and happiness while dark skin is a cause of unhappiness by advertisement is socially harmful and thus should not be encouraged.”

The brand names of the three creams that Agarwal and Roy studied were anonymized. But at the time of the study in 2012, Fair & Lovely was a giant in its sector. A 2005 report in the ICFAI Journal of Marketing Management shows just how far ahead of its competitors it was. Fair & Lovely held 53% of the skin lightening cream market share in India, while its closest competitors CavinKare’s Fairever Fairness Cream and Godrej’s FairGlow held only 12% and 3.5% respectively. The brand’s consistent dominance makes it reasonable to assume its inclusion in the above paper. And that dominance is in India alone. Since its inception in 1975, Fair & Lovely has established a presence in forty other countries across Asia and Africa.

Globally, the skin lightening industry continues to grow. In June 2017, research firm Global Industry Analysts released a report projecting that global spending on skin lightening will triple to USD 31.2 billion by 2024. India and China have the highest estimated growth rate, but robust markets exist across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean—in Jamaica, Rwanda, Ghana, Pakistan, Mali, Nigeria and more. In an alarming testament to the continuation of this toxic legacy, the Brand Equity Most Trusted Brands survey of 2012 found that Fair & Lovely was voted as the eleventh most trusted brand in India.

It’s somewhat validating to learn that I’m not alone in my obsession with that air hostess commercial. The ad, which was met with much disgust when it came out, was pulled off the air in 2003. It wouldn’t be until 2014, when even more ads like that one aired, that the Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulated voluntary group, would issue a set of guidelines to guard against disparaging depictions of dark skin. This commercial, of course, had already done its damage.

At the time it was made, Pranita Rajan, the actress who played the aspiring flight attendant, was a twenty-four year old production executive at a film production house. She’d periodically act or model when budgets were tight, but this was “the first huge-ass film I ever did,” she told me over the phone. The whole thing came together sort of haphazardly. She was already networked within the ad film industry. All the filmmakers knew her work behind-the-scenes and were familiar with her occasional work as a model. She was ferried into the audition by a few mentor-like figures, all well-established senior professionals. “I wasn’t told what the product was,” Rajan recalled, a tad incredulous. “When I went there I saw all these chicks that I had video tested the previous week. They were surprised to see me.”

Her fellow models had known her only as a typical production person and couldn’t believe she was auditioning. “I was wearing dirty jeans and my hair was messy. I ran out and bought a kurta-pajama from FabIndia.”

Rajan had graduated with a Masters in Literature, focusing on Feminist Studies in both her undergraduate and graduate programs. “Look, I’m really uncomfortable with fairness creams,” she told me. “We had lectures on Ethics in Advertising, and the first thing we discussed was Fair & Lovely.” Besides, she added, “All my teachers at Sophia College were feminists. My mother was a feminist. And now I’m being offered to do this. I was in a huge quandary about what to do.”

A self-described “mid-brown” woman, Rajan’s younger sister is slightly fairer than she is. Rajan started becoming aware of the difference in their skin tone when she was about ten years old. People would compliment her sister and then ask “What happened to Pranita?” In her 20s, she says she understood the pain of having grown up “mid-brown,” and her heart went out to those who were much darker than she was. She also started seeing troubling linguistic patterns in her mother tongue, Tamil. People would always compare the color of her skin to that of mud or dirt, mannu, and she found the subtext troubling. Dirt, after all, was to be cleaned up but this—her skin—no matter how hard you tried to wash it off, the color would never lighten.

Rajan’s personal politics were never too far divorced from the commercial itself. For her, the impetus to do the film was the opportunity to express that daughters were just as desirable as sons. “Kash humein ek beta hota”—if only I had a son, rang the pivotal dialogue, echoing the culturally entrenched belief that a daughter was a financial burden, incapable of a successful career with which to support her family. “Remember that this is not something that was talked about then. We can never take away this fact,” Rajan emphasized, speaking about the relative newness of gender equality in the Indian workplace.

When Rajan went back to her alma mater for an event after the commercial aired, she said everyone knew who she was immediately. She was the girl that had done the Fair & Lovely ad. Rajan went to meet with one of her former professors, Jeroo Mullah. “She was so devastated. She told me, ‘I don’t know where I went wrong with you.’” What followed, per Rajan’s recollection, was a discussion about her artistic expression, and her enthusiasm about the commercial’s storyline. “She told me, ‘If you can sleep at night, then fine.’ That fucked with my mind for a while. But now I’m okay with it.”

“The million dollar question in [the making of] the film,” said Rajan, “was how to turn a brown girl white.”

She was subject to seven days of make-up tests with seven different artists before they found someone competent enough to make her look pale-skinned. Even then, she said, for a while after the shoot was over, every single screen in two studios had her face on it—with fifteen CGI artists dedicated to digitally color correcting Rajan’s skin. “Even today when I see the film, I feel like laughing hysterically. I don’t look like myself.”

Rajan is unabashed both about her disgust with fairness creams and her pride at having made this film. “The strange thing is, once the film was made and released, the entire ad community was jubilant. There was mass hysteria. There was this feeling of, our girl, who is always buried under the weight of digibeta tape, has made it. I was a celebrity overnight. This was so different and so lovely, just wonderful.”

She concentrates wholly on the aspects of the film that are cathartic to her. “I am not ashamed I did that film, because what drew me to that script allowed me to channel tremendous pain. The pain of being brown.” When I told Rajan that I found the whole narrative of the film convoluted and her justification ironic, she said, “Even within a topic that you say is convoluted, there is scope for emancipation.”

Fair & Lovely is the only brand I’ve tried, and I must admit that I was never a regular user, in part because of the unpleasant residue it left on my skin. That’s what made it different from regular moisturizers. It was somewhat like foundation. But instead of matching my natural skin tone and working its chemical magic from the inside, it would temporarily mask the dark that lay beneath— a quality that I interpreted as Fair & Lovely’s recognition of its own ineffectiveness. Despite its stronghold on the minds and pockets of so many, the semi-truth of the brand’s claims has understandably caused angst, exemplified by the thousands of blog posts, Yahoo, Reddit and Quora forums screaming iterations of “Does fair and lovely work?!!!! HELP!?”

With advertising doing its grunt work, the fairness industry has been going from strength to strength, unrelentingly telling a nation of people how happy they can be, how to win the respect of their parents and friends, who they can marry, and what job they can get, ad campaign after ad campaign reinforcing long-standing beliefs and sowing new insecurities.

But to isolate either Fair & Lovely or the industry writ large as the sole cause of color-based prejudice in India is far too simplistic. A multitude of factors have cemented our unquestioning reverence of white skin. While the extent and influence of two plausible factors—an ancient system of social hierarchy, the caste system, and early foreign invasions—rake up complex and divergent scholarly debate, the general consensus is that India’s colorism and ingrained Eurocentrism are a product of its colonial history.

A paper by Radhika Parameswaran and Kavitha Cardoza acknowledges the non-linear and multi-dimensional nature of colorism in India, but also asserts that the complicity of the free-market can’t be underplayed. They argue that “… dark skin has been a source of stigma for Indian women long before the arrival of globalization; however, the intensified promotion of light-skinned beauty in advertising since the onset of economic liberalization points to the role that market forces can play in exacerbating divisions of gender, caste, region, and class.”

In less overt ways, India is seeing a quiet rise of home-grown brands and progressive media that embrace dark-skinned models and actors, their very presence operating to subvert the oppressive and ever-present expectations of traditional “western” beauty. That itself is a rebellion, and a joyous one at that, but it’s not enough to wish away nearly five decades of colorist propaganda.

Most recently in March 2017, to a recurring chant of “Fair and Lovely, you need to go,” cultural and political commentator Ram Subramaniam posted a video, a violent takedown of the brand, that went viral and was viewed 2.9 million times to date on his Facebook page alone. Piggy-backing on the success of Subramaniam’s video, critically acclaimed actor Abhay Deol posted an open letter to Facebook criticizing fellow Hindi film actors for endorsing fairness products.

While cyclical outbursts, celebrity or not, and news stories are an important way to maintain dialogue, they’re usually legislatively fangless. One of the few governmental interventions came in 2003 after The All-India Democratic Women’s Association, enraged by a slew of morally reprehensible TV commercials, sent letters of complaint to the corporations responsible and to the National Human Rights Commission. In response, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting notified TV networks to stop airing several commercials. Many networks did not comply, refusing to pull out of previous business commitments. At the center of the entire controversy were two Fair & Lovely commercials—including the one in which Rajan played the air hostess.

When it comes to Fair & Lovely, my most favorite aunt, a woman who is practically my mother, will only admit limited liability. For the years that she was in college, a period that coincided with the brand’s entry into the market, she used the cream on the regular. She’d pester and plead with her father, the sole breadwinner in a family of six, until he bought her a tube. Because they grew up poor, she was very thrifty with her single small tube, eking out small portions for six months at a time. Given the dearth of cosmetic products on the market, she used it in lieu of foundation. Besides, the elite image Fair & Lovely had crafted for itself, the dreams of success, marriage and desirability it peddled–together with its relative affordability–made it an irresistible pleasure.

I imagine my aunt with her sharp nose and cocoa skin, head tilted askew, dotting and then spreading a single pea-sized drop of the cream onto her face, in a frugal but vain daily ritual; as yet unsaddled by adulthood, her spine poker straight as she weaves her thick, black hip-length hair into a single braid, the early morning light her only companion.

Secretly, that image of her before a mirror in the family’s darkened, stone single-room quarters is one of my earliest borrowed memories. It was a validation of my own burgeoning pre-teen obsession with appearance. I imagine, as if it were me, the tension in her hands as she holds this object in her palms, rare and ritualistic, this physical object—leaky, translucent white paint—that represents to a teenager the key to achieving all her life’s desires.

Chatting on the phone one afternoon, I can almost see my mom shaking her head in disapproval as she dredges up those memories. My aunt would keep the tube on a wooden shelf carved into the cavity of their poor man’s chunna walls and enforce strict rules about who could go near it. “Once in a while, if I was going to a wedding, I could use it. But no one else was allowed to touch it,” says my mom, harboring a decades-long exasperation at her sister’s habit.

It is true that my aunt’s usage has slowed over the years. But it is not true that she stopped using it altogether, despite her refusal to openly admit otherwise. Her reluctance to admit it is completely defensible. The family’s general upward mobility from the lower-middle class to a somewhat upper-middle class has now made it unfashionable to use fairness products. And she eventually figured out that it doesn’t work and suspects it likely contains harmful chemicals. Besides, my mom and I have been bullies. Through searing jibes, we would shame her for believing, even slightly, that it worked, and for participating in what we looked at as a racist agenda. I cringe with hindsight, realizing how we must have hurt her. We ignored her deeper insecurities, heaping what should be corporate responsibility onto her already burdened shoulders. We failed to see just how vile the fairness product cycle was—it created insecurities that only it claimed to fix. Whether it worked or not, to my aunt and to many like her, even to my teenage self who once tried the cream, it offered false hope that we too could reap the material benefits that came with having light skin. If nothing else, it brought temporary respite. It would do on days that we wouldn’t.

Having been invaded and conquered repeatedly by droves of light-skinned Others—Persians, Mughals, Portuguese, Dutch, British— and having internalized their malicious legacy of divide-and-conquer, contemporary India still struggles with her surface divisions.

Despite feeling attached to my very first (and last) tube of the stuff, it eventually found its way into the dustbin, still full and heavy, after years of gathering dust in the dressing chest. My parents taught me to be happy enough with who I was, but I never deluded myself into thinking I liked my skin color. I had successfully internalized toxic ideas about fair skin’s superiority. It was—is—second nature to absently compare my forearms and knuckles to the lighter skin on my palms and chest, during math and computer science in middle and high school, while critiquing writing at graduate school, every time I change my clothes, most idle commutes. Thinking about race, appearance and what could have been occupying my waking life. Still, I feel like one of Fair & Lovely’s more fortunate casualties when I think of how others, how my aunt, used it and uses it with a rudderless compulsion. She tells me now it doesn’t work. It’s routine, something to use occasionally, like foundation, nothing more than a mechanical procedure. “You bathe yourself. You use soap and shampoo and conditioner, and then put on this cream. And… you look nice while it’s on your face,” she trails off.

This is the great travesty: the fact that the skin lightening industry is growing at breakneck speed in India despite the mounting doubts and begrudging business of its consumer base. While advertising has been the key tool in perpetuating this oxymoronic reliance, centuries of invasion and imperialism primed Indian culture for accepting violence that has become second-nature. As sociology scholar Shehzaad Nadeem argues in his thesis, the use of skin lightening agents “represents an anxious love for the ‘other’ that is conditioned by power relations.”

When compared with the United States, the scholarship focused on colorism within Asian and African countries is insufficient. Even Parmeshwaran and Cardoza, in attempting to talk about the Indian context, fall back on academia examining the continuing divisiveness of skin color within African-American life “even after the formal dismantling of slavery and segregation.” Having been invaded and conquered repeatedly by droves of light-skinned Others—Persians, Mughals, Portuguese, Dutch, British— and having internalized their malicious legacy of divide-and-conquer, contemporary India still struggles with her surface divisions. Processing this, I discover a renewed heft to the term “neo-colonialism” and connect the dots: Fair & Lovely is manufactured by a subsidiary of Unilever, a British-Dutch company. And an easily overlooked detail of Rajan’s commercial begins to nag at me— the listing that grabs her character’s attention is for a job as a flight attendant at the British Airways.

Standing in the kitchen, my roommate Tanvi and I trade stories about our families and childhoods. Before we know it, we’re nearly doubling over with laughter, as she tells me a family legend.

Sometime between 1950 and 1960, a buffalo calf was born to the Dhond family in a quiet village in Goa, India. Tanvi’s great-grandmother—light-eyed and light-skinned—became inordinately proud of this new birth. The calf was either albino or had a prominent patch of white on its head (three generations down, on an inter-continental video call, the family continues the yet unsettled squabble about which of the two possibilities it could have been). But the great-grandmother’s words, standing the test of time, cut through such trivialities. “Dhondatle ghari gurra pan pandhri asa,” she’d say in Konkani—”In the Dhond family, even the buffaloes are fair skinned.”

After ten minutes of full-bellied laughter, we swapped tragically trite insecurities. Mine: I wasn’t good enough for boys, eyes didn’t light up for me as they did for my light-skinned best friend, I always had the best grades in class but my teachers’ affection were reserved for my thinner, prettier, fairer friends. Trite, perhaps, but powerful enough to have calcified into an iron-clad sense of rejection. I default to finding newer, more potent ways to dislike myself. I am not free.

Both Pranita Rajan and I come from South Indian families. When we spoke, she’d leave smatterings of our shared mother tongue, Tamil, through the conversation, lapsing into it to give a sardonic moment a little extra kick. I relished in the lilt of her sassy Tamil as she recalled the insulting things she had heard said about dark skin. Throughout her life she had observed inherent hatred in the usage of the language, a sharpness that people were unafraid to levy against dark complexions. It was something I had noticed too, a viciousness not just in language but in non-verbal cues. “Somewhere in the 80s people started becoming politically correct,” Rajan had said to me. The eighties, she implied, was when the Indian general public started unlearning the explicit language of bias, swapping it instead for often unpinnable nuance. Judgement still exists out in the open, but it is conveniently deniable: it lives in insults couched as compliments (you should rub lime or potato juice on your knees, elbows and face every day, they’ll become fair and you’ll look even more beautiful), and in racist comments masquerading as jest (she’s as white as milk, but him? seems like the roti got burnt.)

It exists also in my grandmother whose light skin had been a point of pride in her family of thirteen. Her mother, not wanting her daughter’s skin to become dark from toiling over wood fires, banished her from the kitchen. And so my grandma arrived at her in-laws’ home, newly wed, in her 20s, educated and unable to cook—a highly unusual bride back then—but with her fair color intact. Even today when I get out of the shower, her language will occasionally equate my clean skin to whiteness: “Palla palla ni, vallai aa irrukai,” she’ll delight—”Look at you, how white you look, how radiant you glow.” She says these things with complete and utter sincerity, joyful in her role as grandmother and connoisseur of idiom, without any malice towards dark skin. But her language fails her. Bias deeply intermingles with the way she communicates with the world, as it does for so many others. It reminded me of a sentence that haunted Rajan, that will haunt me now—“Addu yettanai techaloon, addu pohadu.”

“No matter how much you scrub it, it won’t wipe off.”