“You’re so pretty, it’s just unfortunate that you’re dark.”

“Your parents are light, why are you dark?”

“Ah, you’ve gained some colour!”

“Why don’t you want to use make-up to make yourself look fairer?”

“It’s important that the man you marry is darker than you, else you’ll constantly feel inadequate.”

“You can’t wear that colour, you’re too dark for it!”

“You are lighter than most Madrasis, how?”

For anyone, a shade darker than Kareena Kapoor, like me, living in New Delhi, having the above statements being hurled at them is a common occurrence. And the tone ranged from concern to pity, curiosity and mockery.

Teachers, friends, well-meaning family members, sales girls at make-up counters – these comments come from all sources. Funnily, Chennai, where I spent six years as an adult, and a city I thought would be more enlightened in this matter, my friend tells me, is just as obsessed with the idea of fairness.

Ad imitates life

I haven’t used a tube of Fair & Lovely in 10 years, and I avoid “fairness” face washes and dubious treatments like the plague. I also laugh at most fairness product ads, especially ones in which superstars like Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan, claim that cream XYZ helped them turn their fortunes around. Though a little part of me can’t help but wonder if, somewhere out there, a teenager watching such commercials is deluded into believing that talent and hard work had no role to play in the stars’ careers, and likewise, won’t in theirs.

The thought saddens me, and makes me sick to my stomach.

But I can’t bring myself to blame the product for advertising itself and I can’t blame the star for endorsing it. Business and ethics seldom make a good marriage.

These products exist because they are in demand, so advertising does its part and ensures the product’s sale and the manufacturers make the product because there’s a demand. It’s just demand-supply economics.

But the survival of this demand depends on the customer continuing to want these products. And this calls for perpetuating the belief that fair skin is desirable. Here, advertisements have a decisive role to play in this. Having said that, the products are a symptom; India’s obsession with “fairness” is the problem.


Nevertheless, if recent media reports are to go by, the symptom is waning. And that’s positive news. According to media reports, numbers from research firm Nielsen suggested that in August 2013 the sales volumes of the fairness cream market in India, worth ₹2,940 crore, had dropped 4.5 per cent compared with over a year ago.

This week, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) released guidelines for advertising of skin-whitening creams. “No advertisement should communicate any discrimination or reinforce negative social stereotyping on the basis of skin colour,” it said. It added that the advertising should not directly or implicitly show people with darker skin, in a way that is widely seen, as unattractive or unhappy. “These ads should not portray people with darker skin in a way that is widely seen as a disadvantage of any kind, or inferior, or unsuccessful in any aspect of life, particularly in relation to being attractive to the opposite sex, matrimony, job placement, promotions and other prospects.” Quoted in the Hindu Business Line , Partha Rakshit, Chairman, ASCI, said: “Given how widespread the advertising for fairness and skin-lightening products is and the concerns of different stakeholders in society, ASCI saw the need to set up specific guidelines for this product category.”

That said our obsession with fairness still looms large, but moves such as this are a small, but vital, step in the right direction. Let the change in attitude begin at home. Tell your girls to stop obsessing about going out in the sun, and tell your boys that it’s fine to marry a girl darker than them. Stop feeding pregnant women copious amounts of milk with saffron in the hope that she bears a fair baby and stop assuming that someone belongs to a certain class/caste based on their skin colour. Stop generalising. The person’s skin colour should never be a consideration.

Historical wrongs, not just in India but around the world, have been committed in the name of skin colour, and it is the job of a sound public policy to rectify them. But as a society, we need to start seeing the person beyond these physical trappings.