in newspapers or on the Web that are used by families to arrange suitable alliances, and you will see that most potential grooms and their families are looking for “fair” brides; some even are progressive enough to invite responses from women belonging to a different caste. These ads, hundreds of which appear in India’s daily newspapers, reﬂ ect attempts to solicit individuals with the appropriate religion, caste, regional ancestry, professional and educational qualiﬁ cations, and, frequently, skin color. Even in the growing numbers of ads that announce “caste no bar,” the adjective “fair” regularly precedes professional qualiﬁ cations. In everyday conversation, the ultimate compliment on someone’s looks is to say someone is gora (fair). “I have no problem with people wanting to be lighter,” said a Delhi beauty parlor owner, Saroj Nath. “It doesn’t make you racist, any more than trying to make yourself look younger makes you ageist.”
Bollywood (India’s Hollywood) gloriﬁ es conventions on beauty by always casting a fair-skinned actress in the role of heroine, surrounded by the darkest extras. Women want to use whiteners because it is “aspirational, like losing weight.” Even the gods supposedly lament their dark complexion—
Krishna sings plaintively, “Radha kyoon gori, main kyoon kala? (Why is Radha so fair when I’m dark?).” A skin deﬁ cient in melanin (the pigment that determines the skin’s brown color) is an ancient predilection. More than 3,500 years ago, Charaka, the famous sage, wrote about herbs that could help make the skin fair.
Indian dermatologists maintain that fairness products cannot truly work as they reach only the upper layers of the skin and so do not affect melanin production. Nevertheless, for some, Fair & Lovely is a “miracle worker.” A user gushes that “The last time I went to my parents’ home, I got compliments on my fair skin from everyone.” For others, there is only disappointment. One 26-year-old working woman has been a regular user for the past eight years but to no avail. “I should have turned into Snow White by now but my skin is still the same wheatish color.” As an owner of a public relations ﬁ rm commented, “My maid has been using Fair and Lovely for years and I still can’t see her in the dark . . .. But she goes on using it. Hope springs eternal, I suppose.”
The number of Indians who think lighter skin is more beautiful may be shrinking. Sumit Isralni, a 22-year-old hair designer in his father’s salon, thinks things have changed in the last two years, at least in India’s most cosmopolitan cities, Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Women now “prefer their own complexion, their natural way” Isralni says; he prefers a more “Indian beauty” himself: “I won’t judge my wife on how fair her complexion is.” Sunita Gupta, a beautician in the same salon, is more critical. “It’s just foolishness!” she exclaimed. The premise of the ads that women could not become airline attendants if they are dark-skinned was wrong, she said. “Nowadays people like black beauty.” It is a truism that women, especially in the tropics, desire to be a shade fairer, no matter what their skin color. Yet, unlike the approach used in India, advertisements elsewhere usually show how to use the product and how it works.
Cultural Norms, Fair & Lovely, and
Fair & Lovely, a branded product of Hindustan Lever Ltd. (HLL), is touted as a cosmetic that lightens skin color. On its Web site (www.hll.com), the company calls its product “the miracle worker,” “proven to deliver one to three shades of change.” While tanning is the rage in Western countries, skin lightening treatments are popular in Asia.
According to industry sources, the top-selling skin lightening cream in India is Fair & Lovely from Hindustan Lever Ltd. (HLL), followed by CavinKare’s Fairever brand. HLL’s Fair & Lovely brand dominated the market with a 90 percent share until...
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