‘Fair and lovely’ has mattered in life!

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(Photo Courtesy: BBC Feature Service -2016)

This article is all about the complex of people of subcontinent having dark skin, and a multinational company’s business trick of introducing ‘Fair & Lovely’ cream some decades back but now, after the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the United States, the company has quickly changed its branding and image to continue doing business.

By Nazarul Islam

British-Dutch multinational giant—the Lever Group, has enjoyed a soft corner, in the hearts of (conscious) women, wherever they live in the countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. For nearly one hundred years, they introduced versions of beauty soaps, moisturizers and the beauty cream. Finally, twenty years ago, the game changer arrived—the Fair and Lovely cream. Application of this product on face and arms would bring cheers equally to the young and old alike, because the users felt they had looked fairer and lighter in skin. That was the high point. That was India’s grass roots revolution!

Much to the dismay of young women who in these countries, the global manufacturers have dropped the word ‘Fair’ from its iconic brand ‘Fair & Lovely’. Obviously, this had been a showcase—more “inclusive vision of beauty”, as the Indian company statement reflected. This is a move that had taken nearly half a century in the making. Now, the same brand is set to become ‘Glow & Lovely’, if reports in the media are anything to go by.

Wherever we continue to live, we have adopted an altered vision of life and style. Instead of equating beauty, success and all things aspirational with ‘fair/fairness’, ‘white/whitening’ and ‘light/lightening’, Indians are being encouraged to apply a cream that helps us ‘glow’. The more you glow, the more you grow. Get it?

Is this performative activism? More likely, this is a token acknowledgment of the changes wrought about by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Here, the corporations have been forced to quickly change their branding and image to continue to do business, especially those in the fashion and beauty sectors.

And for those who have lived their lives for years, in Bangladesh, Pakistan or India—there have been campaigns and movements (Dark is beautiful). DISB began in 2009, calling out ‘Fair & Lovely’ for its ‘racist’ and ‘colorist’-messaging. Last year, DISB had launched a new video with long-time associate/activist Nandita Das and others like Ratna Pathak Shah, Ali Fazal, Radhika Apte, Swara Bhasker and Vikrant Massey – with the tagline ‘India’s Got Color’

However, in February this year, India’s Health and Family Welfare Ministry had proposed a draft amendment to the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements Act, 1954). Advertisements promoting fair skin, sexual enhancement etc., are set to attract a five-year jail term and a fine of up to Rs.5.0 million. But this is still a proposed amendment.

No wonder then that Unilever of India is now more mindful of its imaging in the Indian sub-continent and beyond!

While the name change is a step in the right direction, only the name is changing. The formulation will apparently stay the same. Not surprising. After all, ‘Fair & Lovely’ is part of a winning formula. It is the “leading fairness cream brand in India”, controlling a “third of the segment”, as a news report puts it. The brand had brought in Rs.2000 crore in annual revenues.

But the longing for lighter skin is all-pervasive in the cultural psyche. That may well boost the earnings of indigenously manufactured fairness cream products. The desi company promises to bestow both atma ‘nirbharta ‘and fairness on desh-bhakts through its ‘Soundarya Swarna Kranti’ fairness cream, for an affordable price. Compare this to ‘Fair & Lovely’ which is only one/tenth in price for 50 gms! But then, an indigenous competitor Forest Essentials has a ‘Soundarya Radiance Cream’ with 24 K gold that is Rs.4800 for 50 gm.

Meaning, ‘Fair & Lovely’ is but one aspect of the fair-color worshipper inside our collective consciousness. The truth is, each of us has a color-related story, independent of gender. Perhaps our parents had the same story to share and their parents, too….For generations, we have been told that the shade of our skin is to be equated with our successes and failures. Popular culture reinforces that message through the films we see, the advertisements we are bombarded with, the stories we are told.

Ah yes, we may spout the need to recognize ‘inner beauty’, but we will continue to apply ubtans (scrubs or soaps or masks) and other radiance-inducing potions on ourselves and our children. And we may well reject the repackaged ‘Glow & Lovely’. But consider this: The ‘India’s Got Color’ video got 466,775 views. Top-rated YouTube videos for fairness and skin-whitening routinely attract 1 million views upwards. One titled ‘feet-whitening pedicure’ has 23 million views!

‘Fair & Lovely’ used to come with a shade card (depicting the degrees of lightness/fairness achieved with regular use). Mind it, beautiful ladies….that card may or may not exist in the re-branded version!

My American friends disagree. Someone had shared lately—I love African American women, but not their complexion. You can’t say that for our ‘fair and lovely’ women.

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The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist and is settled in USA. He writes regularly for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America.

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