From depictions of "suitable" marriage partners in Netflix series Indian Matchmaking to the on-going popularity of skin-lightening creams, colourism remains rife in certain communities. Here, writer Ayesha Muttucumaru details her complicated relationship with the word ‘fair’ – and why calling out shade bias is vital.
"They dropped the F-Bomb." From the moment my mum and I started watching Indian Matchmaking on Netflix, we felt it would only be a matter of time until the word that makes us wince like no other was uttered. The term in question? No, not a four-lettered expletive, but something far more insidious. "Fair."
As you might know, the docu-series follows "Mumbai’s top matchmaker," Sima Taparia, as she helps a range of single people in India and the US, with the help of their families, find their future wife or husband. The format has proven divisive. Criticisms levied by certain members of the Indian diaspora on Twitter include that some of the show's participants engage in caste-discrimintion, mostly using euphemistic terms ("from a good family", "similar backgrounds"), as well as colourism (a prejudice or discrimination towards those with dark skin that usually occurs within the same ethnic group).
The latter is seen when some participants request a match with "fair" skin. As well as affecting those with darker complexions in south Asian communities, it should be noted that attitudes such as these can lead people down a dangerous road to anti-Blackness.
These statements, some said, go unchallenged by Taparia, which could lead to the normalisation or affirmation of such views. (Speaking to The Cut, Smriti Mundhra, the show's executive producer, said that she welcomes critique: "We’re now at a point where we can actually hold representation to a higher standard and push for better and more nuanced stories. I want to be held accountable. Push me so I can push too.")
Why the word 'fair' is problematic
As to why the word 'fair' is an issue? Short story: it is not just seen as a way to denote someone’s appearance, but a character trait, having become synonymous with a person’s place in society, their chances of professional success, status and self-worth. The connotations go far beyond the superficial.
Sounds archaic, right? However, seeing one US-based show contestant casually list: "not too dark" and "fair skin" as a preferred "want" in a potential parter was a stark reminder that colourism seems to be very much alive and kicking, even in my millennial generation.
The history of colourism in south Asian communities
Colonialism and the caste system are two of the reasons attributed to enduring colourist attitudes, as is the way skin colour is portrayed in the film industry, the media and by beauty brands. One notable example is the 'fairness' cream Fair & Lovely whose advertisements in India have historically implied that fair skin might help you meet the person of your dreams, or finally get that job you've always desired. It’s also not unusual to spot top Bollywood actors and actresses promoting these products.
It’s a mindset that is deep-seated in the South Asian community. Growing up, I was extremely fortunate to have parents that didn’t buy into the fairness BS. However, I soon realised that my experiences were quite unusual, highlighted when I’d observe the experiences of South Asian friends and when I’d go to Sri Lanka on holiday, (where my family is from). There, adverts promoting fairness as the beauty ideal were commonplace.
Preferences for light skin were still clearly evident in the UK, too: the sole Asian representative in a beauty campaign being almost always light skinned.
Speaking to other South Asians who work in the beauty industry, for me, has proven therapeutic. "Growing up, it was incredibly 'normal' to hear that fair skin was to be coveted," recalls consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto. "Relatives would dissuade me from going outdoors or warn me not to get tanned on holiday. 'You’ve become so dark' after a trip away was a common criticism to be faced with; fair skin carried currency."
Skin-lightening is a global issue
From South Asia to China, the Middle East and Africa, skin-lightening is still big business. Fair & Lovely brings in around $317m in annual revenue, making it India’s biggest-selling skin-lightening cream, and research firm Global Industry Analysts estimates that the international market for skin-lightening cosmetics could reach $12.3 billion dollars by 2027. A World Health Organisation study also revealed that a staggering 77 per cent of Nigerian women reported using skin-lightening products regularly – the world’s highest percentage.
Dr Tijion Esho is a cosmetic doctor, and member of the Black Aesthetics Advisory Board. He's Nigerian, and grew up in the UK.
He remembers going to visit Nigeria with his parents and seeing skin-lightening products "all the time" in adverts and hardly ever seeing dark-skinned main characters in Bollywood films [which are popular among some Nigerian audiences]. "A higher level of social class was associated with having lighter skin," he tells me. "It was hard to escape the association of skin tone with professional success when the biggest roles and greater screen time were given to those who were considered 'fair'."
"It was the same in Europe too; the more European-looking you were, the more of a chance you had of progressing and being accepted."
Dr Esho still sees patients from Black and Asian communities coming into his clinic asking to lighten their entire skin tone. When it becomes clear that this is what they’re trying to do, he tries to re-educate them as to why this outlook is so problematic and can be harmful. Dr Mahto agrees that she would take a similar tack, after a thorough consultation ("I personally do not believe it is ethical to offer treatments which may do this," she tells me.)
Elsewhere, Black Aesthetics Advisory member Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme and her team conduct body dysmorphia screenings with patients before agreeing to treat any of them. In her experience, some people seeking to lighten all of their skin fall into this category. "In that case, I know that I won’t be able to help them, no matter what I give them," she says. Anyone who has body dysmorphia is referred for help to identify and address the underlying issue.
Time for change
Anger towards what skin-lightening creams represent has been simmering for years. However, things seem to have come to a head in the past few months, due, in part, to the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was African-American, at the hands of a white police officer. Recently, cosmetics companies around the world have been re-evaluating their product ranges. L’Oreal, for example, has said that it’ll stop using the words such as, ‘fair,’ ‘fairness,’ ‘light’ and ‘lightening’ on its products.
Unilever (which owns Fair & Lovely) announced that it would be re-branding the product to Glow & Lovely. "We recognise that the use of the words 'fair', 'white' and 'light' suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don't think is right, and we want to address this," the company said in a statement.
However, Glow & Lovely will still have the same ingredients, and, as such, is still the same product. Also, ‘glow’-boosting products range from exfoliators that slough off dead skin cells to retinols, which increase cell turnover, so the fact that ‘glow’ is now used to include a skin-lightening cream, to me, is confusing.
"I'm unconvinced that the renaming will have an impact on colourism and its impact on mental health," psychologist Natasha Tiwari, who is British Indian, tells me. "For communities where colourism is the elephant in the room, and for many, an elephant trampling all over their self-esteem, they will still call the product 'Fair & Lovely' out of habit."
She adds: "Colourism may have been perpetuated by commercial products and various facets of the film and entertainment industry, but its foundations are in cultural practices and beliefs which are rooted in as much as thousands of years of history, when considering South Asian communities. Replacing 'fair' with 'glow' is still problematic, and for those mindful of its impact on individuals and communities, this gesture is transparent."
Is banning skin-lightening creams the answer?
While some argue that outlawing sales of skin-lightening creams could halt the flow of the issue, I'm not fully convinced. This measure could help, but, as I see it, unless the underlying causes are addressed, colourism is rooted out in our communities, and we address internalised racism within ourselves, getting rid of the supply won’t necessarily affect demand – and provide the long-term change that’s needed.
Some experts also point out that an outright ban could increase the use of illegal and harmful skin-bleaching creams as a substitute, because the issue is so deep-rooted. The doctors and dermatologists that I spoke to told me that their clientele includes patients suffering with the after-effects of using bleaching creams, such as chemical burns, scarring, thinning of the skin, hyperpigmentation, severe acne and stretch-marks on the body.
Representation in the companies that produce these products is also imperative. "Companies can’t make decisions about Black and minority groups without including them in the process," Dr Esho says. "That’s where it goes wrong and that’s why the Black Aesthetics Advisory Board was created. Involve us in that process, and that’s how you’ll get things right for us going forward."
How to talk about colourism
Closer to home, when it comes to dealing with colourist comments from family members or friends, call them out whenever you hear them and get comfortable with the prospect of having uncomfortable conversations – including with yourself. Complicity just keeps the colourism cycle going. "Keep it simple," recommends Natasha. "When someone says something that offends or upsets you, say that it hurts your feelings, or that it is upsetting to you because you know it is hurtful to others."
Expect a level of defensiveness. "This is absolutely an issue that it is right to be sensitive over, and you should take courage in saying so," says Natasha. "If you feel you can, question those who make colourist comments about where their beliefs really come from.
"Often, those making hurtful comments do so without any understanding of why they do, or where they inherited the idea from. By challenging people to consider if this belief is truly theirs, you can be a real part of making a psychological shift in the communities you belong to."
This article was originally published by Women's Health, who have reached out to Unilever for a response and had yet to hear back at the time of publishing. This article will be updated when one comes in.
Ayesha is a beauty and lifestyle journalist with nearly a decade’s experience working for a range of publications. She writes about everything from the newest foundation to demystifying the latest skincare jargon, with a special interest in diversity and mental health. Follow her on Instagram.
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