Humans have been obsessed with beauty since time immemorial, doing everything in their power to attain perfect features and retain their youth. The craze for fairer skin tone and ideal beauty are familiar subjects but not so often spoken about. Society has created an unrealistic beauty standard which is reinforced by popular media. This fuels the growth of the cosmetics industry which again strengthens these beliefs. These ingrained thoughts have affected the mental health and the lives of many as they attempt to reach the conventional standards of beauty.
A lot of society’s obsession with fair skin dates back to the colonial era. In an attempt to make a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, a racial divide was constructed by the colonialists and soon fair skin became associated with power and class. With these false notions imbibed in society, segregation based on colour and race were enforced. This resulted in countless hurdles, as many saw a decrease in opportunities due to their skin tone not fitting the built-up prejudices which is quite prominent today too.
With over 1 million employees in the service segment of the cosmetics industry, it has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Moreover, as these fairness products are not marketed as pharmaceutical products, they need not prove their efficacy. Thus, companies like Fair&Lovely can claim that their products result in a dramatic skin whitening after only six weeks of application. According to a news outlet, India’s skin lightening industry is estimated to be worth nearly half a billion dollars. The World Health Organization issued a warning: “The main adverse effect of the inorganic mercury contained in skin lightening soaps and creams is kidney damage.”
Around 6 in 10 women in India use skin lightening creams and other bleaching products. This is because fair skin holds the power to determine a person’s prospects in life, especially for women. There is systemic discrimination against dark-skinned people in education systems and the labour market. Educators and employers prefer light-skinned Indians over dark-skinned ones, which plays greatly as dark-skinned Indians are deprived of numerous opportunities for social mobility. The desperation for lighter complexion is demonstrated even in the choice of one’s partner i.e, in matrimonial sites. In 2012, a survey recorded in a site ‘Jeevansathi.com’, claimed that 71% of women looked for men with fair skin, while 65-70% of men had their skin tones manipulated with the use of computer software.
The Black Lives Matter movement, initiated in the US, created ripples in India where it brought forth conversations about the subtler forms of racism prevalent in society. It generated a backlash against fairness cream companies. In response, some companies, fearing a drop in sales, renamed their brands by removing words like ‘fairness’ or ‘whitening’. A well-known example of this is the company Fair&Lovely changing to Glow&Lovely. Others like Johnson & Johnson have resorted to discontinuing the production of fairness creams all together.
In India, one of the main factors boosting the sales of fairness creams has been celebrity endorsement. Advertisements featuring a popular Bollywood celebrity extolling the benefits of a particular brand of skin whitening cream has become quite widespread. These further reinforce the subtle association between success and fair skin. However, many of the same celebrities had jumped on the ‘BLM movement’ bandwagon when it started catching wind. For example, the popular Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra was the face for a Garnier cream that promotes ‘fairness plus dark spots reduction’. And like many celebrities, she had shared a lengthy Instagram post on the Black Lives Matter movement. The hypocrisy is quite evident, as these celebrities attempt to appear ‘woke’. Despite having the power to bring about a change in society, they end up passing the baton to the next generation. Thus, solidifying the vicious cycle without achieving anything fruitful.
However, in recent years, the perception of beauty has changed. In an attempt to be more inclusive, modelling agencies have started to hire people of all shades and beauty industries have started to manufacture cosmetics catering to all skin tones. These are significant changes; however, they aren’t enough to combat and overturn the stereotypes ingrained in us during the last century through social conditioning.
These beauty ideals have a deteriorating effect on an individual’s psyche. It creates a poor self image and fosters impossible wants that people go to any extent to fulfil. The desire for fairness is growing to an extent where people sideline the long term effects of their usage. This results in low self-esteem in individuals of dark complexion, leaving them depressed. Statistics have revealed that people who aren’t fair, fail to voice their opinions and cannot take a stance for themselves. They are constantly waging a war within to accept their true self. The constant need for beauty for validation from society forces them to resort to bleaching and other methods of whitening their skins which has lasting adverse impacts physically and mentally.
Having a healthy and fit body is a ‘need’, essential for one’s well-being. Whereas a body with ‘ideal’ proportions is a ‘want’, not an essential. Often, the concepts of ‘need’ and ‘want’ become blurred. Beauty standards have always been volatile and differed drastically in different cultures. However, globalization and western influence have reinforced a particular ideal, which has turned toxic. There is nothing inherently wrong in wanting a slimmer body or fairer skin, but one needs to be conscious of these decisions and they must stem from intrinsic desires rather than from external factors, and most importantly, one’s perception of beauty must never be imposed on another.
-Written and curated by Deekshita, Saivishak and Soundarya