Friday, May 1, 2009

Buying Beauty: Bollywood, Women and Skin

This is part one of an essay I wrote for a Fall 2008 GWSS class.

“Bethany, I used to have skin just like yours, but now look at how fair I am. Really, you could be so much more beautiful…I mean, you are…but just try this cream.”

That was what my aunt said to me as she handed me a tube of Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream. I was 16 years old, and my face felt like it was burning as I thought to myself how much lotion it would take in order make every single part of my skin lighter (and more beautiful). How is such a product still being made and marketed around the world? And how is it possible that an Indian actress is seen as more beautiful just because she has lighter skin? How can scientists develop a safe product, which must contain some sort of bleaching component to aid with lightening the skin?

In his essay, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn argues that science is ever evolving and made from circumstances, which raise a need, and the possibilities of scientific tests, which produce a product. With Europeans and white Americans being in the forefront of the media and being active colonists of the “developing world” or “third world,” the idea of Whiteness being a mark of beauty impacted communities of color so much that scientists came up with a skin bleaching cream in order to make a profit and meet a need. The effects of skin lightening on women of color throughout generations have been devastating, social and cultural stigma of being darker colored reaches from the workplace to marriage. The idea that this cream has become a fundamental part of an Indian, Indian-American, Arab, Arab-American’s daily beauty routine and is found in the drawers of a woman of every brownish skin shade is unfortunate and destructive to the mental and body health of the women who uses it or encourages other women to use it.

Fair & Lovely (F&L) is quite an established line of beauty products, which all use “fairness” in some way to describe what the cream, soap or serum does for the user. F&L, a Hindustani Unilever Limited brand that was patented in 1971, is made in India and then sent to the United Arab Emirates, which stocks the products and then redistributes internationally. F&L used to market solely to women, but with their new Fair and Handsome Menz Active line, the next generation of users are recruited. The women’s line of F&L is sold in almost all pink packing, while the new men’s line is packed in white, black or red. According to Synovate, a market research company, Four in 10 Asian women use a “lightening” cream (Synovate, 2004).

A popular F&L commercial showing a young woman who wants to get a job as a TV reporter begins with her very naïve when she was several shades darker. “Four is my lucky number. I graduated after four years, but just before my fourth interview I realized that the obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin.” The scene cuts to her interviewing for a news anchor job, with the interviewers dismissing her with a wave, seemingly because she was too dark. “Fair & Lovely, for total fairness in four weeks.” Now she is lighter, has the job and is reporting to you from Egypt. “Great job, what are you doing at four? Asks the handsome young producer who has been watching her, she glances back at the camera, “I told you that four was my lucky number!”

Commercials like this one are made in Arabic, Hindi, Tamil, English, Chinese, Japanese and so much more, and are played repeatedly all over the Middle East, India and Asia. Bollywood, India’s Hollywood, is a firm believer in the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are thought and action process. Major celebrities are always lighter, or wear lots of body makeup and shoot under intense lightening so that they look whiter. Darker actors and actresses are always the villains, poor people or prostitutes. In another F&L commercial, Shah Rukh Khan, India’s Brad Pitt, helps a darker young man out when he sees that the poor guy is having no luck with women. Khan gives him a bottle of the new F&L Menz Active fairness cream and then after he uses it, the girl’s flock to him. Khan was widely criticized for his role in this commercial, but there are still hundreds of men and women who buy F&L and continue to pass it on to their children in hopes of having lighter, more beautiful family members.

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