Recently HUL decided to drop the word ‘Fair’ from one of its most successful products ‘Fair and Lovely’, claiming that they are committed to a skin care portfolio that’s inclusive of all skin tones, celebrating the diversity of beauty!!! How convenient! They thought of celebrating the diversity only after years of protests that it promotes prejudice over skin colour. While they have dropped the word ‘Fair’ from the packaging and are yet to come up with another name, they are going to continue with the same stuff inside the tube and thus giving false notions of hope ( not required at all to begin with) to the millions of girls and women who attach a lot of vanity to being ‘fair’. Basically, the tube is likely going to be the old wine in new bottle.
Who is to be blamed for such biases?
Can we really blame these business houses? They are running a business that thrives on stereotypes, our own perceptions and unfortunately this runs way deeper than the skin! We have stereotypes not only about one colour being superior to the other, we also have stereotypes about the caste, body shape, culture, food, race (George Floyd was only the latest victim)!
Coming to the colour, ‘white’ seems to have gotten unfair share of people’s adulation and attention, across countries. And it is not only the skin I am talking about. With the British imperialism, came the fixation with white, and everything that related with ‘white’! Before that, renaissance period helped establish the white supremacy. And some how it got ingrained in the various societies that ‘white’ is better! Having ‘fair’ skin denoted affluency, as this corroborated the fact that the individual did not need to toil in the sun, in effect pronouncing them financially better off! So, somewhere ‘white’ also became rich!!
Come to think of it, in Mahabharata, one of the epic literatures in the Hindu culture, the most important female character is Draupadi. She is portrayed as a woman to be desired and is considered to be the most beautiful woman in the entire region, who incidentally is dark skinned. This rich literary work is not only a source of information on the religious development but also about the history and culture of that era. Clearly Indians did not have that ‘white fetish’ at that time.
Notwithstanding this literary fact, all the ‘Draupadis’ portrayed on the various media platforms subsequently, without abrasion, are anything but dark skinned!!! Why so? Of course, because beauty definition has changed in our minds since, and the production houses surely do not want to take chances by showing an ugly (read dark skinned) Draupadi! The definition changed over the centuries with people coming from areas that had white dominance! How ironical it is to think that this thought was and is held by people, invading and plundering whom, ‘white’ became wealthier and came ahead!
We turned ‘white’ into power- even culturally
Armed with affluence, it started calling the shots! And somewhere along the line, it got connected with ‘power’. Fair skin no longer was a thing of beauty, it reflected ambition and hope (of the same power enjoyed by the whites) of the poor population and countries. Even the culture associated with white people gained more ground for the same reasons. The language that they spoke, wrote, the way they lived, became the parameter for anything to be considered ‘good’ or in ‘fine taste’- in India and in other erstwhile British colonies and sadly continues to be so. In developing countries, English language has come to become the language of ambition, class and success- any individual worth his/her salt, wants to be perceived as fluent in that language. It feels more elite and developed (Actually the premium of being elite has shifted from mere proficiency in the language to the accent now, as a sizeable number of population in these countries, especially in India, can speak and understand this language now!) So basically, we are biased towards the culture too, which is the interpretation of any phenomena based on one’s own cultural standards. It can either be superiority complex or inferiority complex. In the case of people from developed world, it turned out to be superiority complex while population of poorer countries suffered from inferiority complex, rather it got internalized. A bias that was cultural, manifested itself through the skin colour. And companies like HULs cashed onto that biasedness for decades with cream like Fair and Lovely, advertised with two faces, one dusky, another white and it came with a ‘shade card’!!!! In retrospect, can we really blame them? As they say, you get what you deserve. In a society which seeks ‘girls with fair complexion’ for their sons in matrimonial, this kind of cream and packaging was a shortcut to mint money and boy, succeed they did!!!! On the other side, it’s pretty normal for people with white skin to undermine (a polite term but in reality, much worse) people with darker skin tones!’
Stereotypes and biases beyond the colour of skin
However, this is just one layer of prejudices or stereotypes we carry. Unsurprisingly, to cater to our biases of how we look, we have an entire medical branch to help people achieve the desired look- a sharper nose, a more chiseled jawline, fuller lips- just in order to be a part of the group of ‘beautiful people’ ( So far haven’t heard of anyone going for African looks)!
We can be biased even unknowingly
There are other biases as well that we carry in the most unconscious way. They take roots in our minds as implicit biases as a result of social and cultural conditioning. It begins rather early. According to a study, by the age of five, many children form definite and entrenched stereotypes about skin colour, women, obese etc. “Children don’t have a choice about accepting or rejecting these conceptions, since they’re acquired well before they have the cognitive abilities or experiences to form their own beliefs,” says one of the researchers in the study that I went through in order to understand stereotypes. It is so internalized in our system that we don’t even realize that we are being biased towards race, gender, class and even sexual orientation. (Now that I am thinking of it, I realise that I am consciously trying to be ‘cool’ about Homos, but I know that I will be supremely anxious and conscious, if it gets closer home!)
The good part- We can change it!
Fortunately, world is changing, and people have begun to acknowledge the existence of such biases which is the first step in fighting against it. May be we shall invariably be able to give a ‘fair’ chance to the conscious and unprejudiced beliefs to take over ( Back to my phobia about homo getting closer home, I am sure that with my own admission about it, I shall overcome this bias!). Also, it’s imperative to be honest about these admissions and dropping ‘fair’ from the tube of ‘fair and lovely’ is anything but honest! In an environment that’s increasingly turning against such blatant endorsement of exploitative stereotypes, their action is simply a politically correct action in order to avoid the backlash! It is going to be the same cream inside the tube and it is still hoping to catch the fancy of thousands of girls and women for whom, being ‘fair’ is still a card to wider social acceptance! Whom do we blame now- let’s be ‘fair’ and change the narrative!
Copyright © Aradhana Mishra
Photo credit @allure.com
Following researches (one is as old as 1998 and still relevant) that I found online, helped me understand the issue of stereotypes in a wider perspective!