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India: Fair, Lovely and Facebooked

Image Courtesy Bhatnaturally

A new Facebook app has been creating some controversy in India. The Facebook app, launched by Vaseline, is a product line owned by Unilever lets users lighten the skin colour on their profile pictures. It is not the first time that desirability of ‘fairness’ has been discussed in the Indian blogosphere. However, the app in question promotes a product that targets men, which is a relatively new trend. So far, most fairness creams in the Indian market usually target female consumers. Le Sigh observes:

The thing that strikes me most about this advertisement is that, it in fact focuses on the need for men to have fair skin, not women. That boggles my mind considering that in Anthropological speak; women are the ones who represent culture not men. In one way, these advertisements are certainly progressive in their inclusion of men in the “fairness” conversation.

In response to Le Sigh‘s post, a comment by Sneha, who works for an advertising agency, highlights some of the reasons for men becoming the target of fairness cream manufacturers.

Men in urban India today are much more concerned about their looks today than they were before. Today, whether at the workplace or outside, many men are more in touch with women who match their income level and job status. Also, as more relationships develop outside the arranged marriage system and dating before marriage becomes more common, men are beginning to feel an increased pressure to be groomed and appear attractive to these women. … Fairness has been an age old obsession in Indian culture, and we find that in group discussions and interviews with men, when asked if there was one thing they could change, it would be their skin colour..

Suhail at Rantings of a Homesick Lunatic discusses the subliminal racism that exists in India, where preference to lighter skin is deeply entrenched in many communities. This preference can manifest in many ways.

Some pretty obvious observations are the film industry, and down south females need to have milky-white skin to be able to land the big roles along side “superstars”, who are sometimes on the other end of the skin color spectrum, but that's more sexist than racist. It became pretty apparent to me that camera-facing jobs for TV and media almost always go for the fairer skinned candidate.

Freshbrew points out that the controversial aspect of the product's marketing strategy is not so much that it attempts to sell ‘fairness’ but that it sells it to men, and that it's for this reason that people are sitting up and taking note. Bhatnaturally points out that it maybe pointless to blame the manufacturers of the product, and perhaps that the ‘digital’ nature of the campaign brings more focus to the product and the app.

People accuse brands like these of reinforcing the notion that fairness is more desirable, superior and causing great harm to society. The counter argument that such brands merely tap into an existing need (long before such products were even conceived or advertised) falls on deaf ears.

A related sentiment is echoed in many comments across blogs, where people feel that the preference for being light skinned is being judged by those who are not familiar with the cultural context and is being labeled racist. Gautam Ramdurai comments in Danah Boyd's post:

The Western uproar is interesting – and is rooted in some amount ignorance. The issue is about the perception of beauty and not of race. Obviously, many commenting on this topic have no idea what the idea of beauty is in India – and hence this looks like an obviously “racist” app. There are people in India who think this app (and the product) is despicable – but for different reasons. I can pull out a lot of western counterparts to the same issue – like tanning salons, the obsession with staying skinny etc – but none of them comes close to explaining the complexity of this issue. It surprises me, how as part of the a “flat world” – we still don’t take off our lenses of comfort when looking at the socio-cultural events from other parts of the globe.

  • Pingback: Fair Boy, Fair Girl. What’s the Difference? « Le Sigh

  • Luis Henrique

    It might be interesting to trace Unilever’s strategies globally. In Brazil the company has launched deodorants designed for black skin (whatever this means). In the case of the Axe line of products, the strategy didn’t work as expected and I assume they discontinued the line. Recently Unilever launched Axe Dark Temptation line – which appeals to the temptation of chocolate (but I wonder if it is not a relaunch of the former line with a different appeal). This time, there’s no connection with the color of the skin but… check this [pt]: http://www.axe.com.br/dark/site/

  • Chris Rickleton

    Gautam Ramdurai seems to say a lot without saying anything. Yes the issue is complex, but why? In China ‘fair’ was associated with ‘rich’ and therefore ‘beautiful’ because it implied one of those women sitting under the umbrellas shaded from the sun rather than a peasant working under its burning glare. Is this the case in India – i.e socioeconomic rather than racist conception of beauty.

    In Britain we used to like our woment fat and fair (the renaissance/victorian/ ideal. Now we like them thin and tanned. Its funny how things change. Interesting article.

    • http://precisecuriosity.com Gautam Ramdurai

      The Chinese example of “fair”=”rich” is a simple one of public perception. The reason I call this issue “complex” when it comes to India is because of the sheer number of factors that play a role here. Let me try and list a few –

      Geographic – North Indians have fairer complexion than South Indians. North India has the seat of political power – it houses the capital of India and has a bigger say in national issues.
      Socio-economic – This gets even more complex with two sub-factors, not mutually exclusive – caste and class. So, “fair” doesn’t just equate to “rich” – it also equates to “higher caste”.
      Relationships – The concept of the “fair bride” is deeply ingrained in the collective psyches of a lot of traditional Indian families. In a country that primarily chooses the arranged marriage route – this matters a lot. A quick look at the matrimonial classifieds section of any newspaper should give you a very clear picture of this.
      Religion – The classic archetypes portrayed by Hindu gods are the dusky male god and his fair female consort. The only dark skinned female goddess is Kali-goddess of death.
      Cinema – Long before this app (or even this product) was conceived, there was Indian cinema. This industry has immense power over the people of my country. Rarely is the leading lady dark-skinned. There have been a few exceptions recently. In India, actors are not just actors – they are idols. And it is only natural that young Indians want to emulate their idols. Case in point, the guy that you see in the ad above is a Bollywood heartthrob.

      I’m sure there are more issues than these, but I think this is sufficient to point out that the issue not as simple as “fair”=”rich”. Such issues are made complex by the diversity of the people of India and the things that motivate them. Hope that clears it up!

  • http://www.change.org/petitions/view/unilever_please_stop_marketing_racist_products Sandeep

    Heyy Congrats!!!!…. One small victory over Unilever!!!! They have taken off the “Vaseline Men Be Prepared” app from facebook, finally!!! yayyy!!! now only if we could get them to stop their racist advertisments in Asia and Africa………… and stop marketing their con products that claim to whiten skin!!! Most of all, if people could stop thinking their skin color makes them different!!!! :)

    Pls join the campaign: http://www.change.org/petitions/view/unilever_please_stop_marketing_racist_products

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