One white can't cover up 3 ugliness

Updated: Jul 14, 2020, 07:33 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Fair & Lovely is now Glow & Lovely. Because, you know, black lives matter. The name may have changed but it's still the same game.

Representation pic
Representation pic

C Y GopinathI learned today that I am a Fitzpatrick Type 4, maybe borderline 5. A brown paper bag is just about a Fitzpatrick 3. My skin is a shade darker than a brown paper bag, according to Thomas Fitzpatrick's 6-point scale of skin colours. I am biscuit-coloured. I'm a brownie.

Although Mr Fitzpatrick's primary interest was in the effect of ultraviolet radiation on different shades of skin, his system also created a simple metric for social desirability. In India, fairness has always signified beauty with brains, guaranteeing popularity and success. Fair people were winners.

I've always wondered why. Was it because black is the colour of night, full of unknown dangers? Certainly not because of our culture, because did we not have our dark-skinned god called Krishna, whose name in Sanskrit means black? Was it because our erstwhile colonisers were white?

All wrong. Even as far back as the Chinese Han dynasty 2,500 years ago, the ideal of beauty for women was moon-like faces and deathly, chalk-white skin. Asians today spend $18 billion a year to look pale. "One white," goes the slogan, "can cover up three ugliness."

Inconveniently, the whole world is suddenly acutely race-conscious. Black lives apparently matter, and corporations peddling skin-lighteners are in the spotlight.

But Hindustan Unilever's Fair & Lovely is said to net R24 billion in annual revenue. You don't just kill a cash cow like that no matter how much black lives matter. So they left the fairness cream intact and rebranded it as Glow & Lovely.

But my fight with this insidious cream goes back decades, and it's far from over.

The '80s were ending. I was a Creative Director at the large advertising agency that handled Hindustan Lever's Personal Products, with a team of over 20 bright, peppy art directors, illustrators and copywriters. My portfolio included Pears soap, Close-up toothpaste, and Fair & Lovely, which women believed would morph their skin from chocolatey brown to creamy white. It was a great time to be a Fitzpatrick 6.

I worked on Fair & Lovely with disquiet for a few months, helping create ads that assured countless young Indian women that their worst fears about being dark-skinned and damned were spot on. That they were indeed doomed to spinsterhood and would never be invited to parties. Unless they wised up and began using Unilever's amazing fairness cream.

A corporation makes money by feeding the market what it wants. And the Indian market, apparently, was desperately seeking fair skin. Unilever did not invent fairness; they merely milked it.

One day I did the unthinkable. I told my branch manager that I could no longer create ads for a product that fed off the anxieties of young Indian women. I also would not let my team work on Fair & Lovely.

Ad agencies that bite the brands that feed them generally do poorly, but as a 'creative', I must have been viewed as quirky and unstable, prone to attacks of principles and petulance. Meanwhile, it was decided that the client didn't need to know about my tantrum.

Matters soon came to a head. I was tersely invited by top management to stop being a part of the problem and instead suggest an advertising solution.

I asked to see the research and was promptly buried under cartons of files and reports. Loving dot-matrix printouts as I do, I read every page. Several days later, I saw where the lie lay: nowhere in the advertising did Fair & Lovely claim to make anyone fair. The promise was always "Makes you fairer". There's a difference.

Your body responds to exposure to sunlight by stepping up its production of melanin, which darkens your skin. Any chemical that suppresses melanin production will inevitably lighten skin. Fair & Lovely's chemical formulation includes niacinamide, better known as Vitamin B3, which naturally slows down the creation of melanin and gradually lightens your skin — but only as long as you use the cream.

Then I stumbled upon a telltale before-and-after graph. It showed skin colour before and after exposure to sunlight, and then again after using Fair & Lovely for three weeks. Tick marks told the story. If the outdoors had darkened you a few shades — and who among us doesn't get a little daily tanning? — then the cream would make you fairer, but never fairer than the shade you were born with.

A Fitzpatrick 5 wasn't going to become a Fitzpatrick 2. Or even 4.

I suggested calling it the cream "that's fair to your skin", with the implication that all god-given shades are beautiful and equitable. But the marketing gurus knew that the Indian market yearned for utter, absolute fairness. They couldn't change the cream, so they changed the name.

But calling it Glow & Lovely is like calling a pig a peacock and expecting it to dance.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com
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