LIFESTYLE

Dove Apologized For A Skin Tone-Deaf Ad, But India's Fairness Industry Has No Such Compulsion

Unfair and ugly stereotyping.

09/10/2017 12:32 PM IST | Updated 09/10/2017 12:34 PM IST
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Fair and Lovely Menz Active and Fair and Handsome Fairness Cream for Men are displayed at the Anand General Store in Khan Market in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday, October 31, 2006.

Obviously Dove was not thinking very straight when it released a Facebook advert that showed a black woman pulling off her T-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath. The white woman then pulls off her T-shirt to reveal an Asian woman underneath.

Dove probably did not mean to be racist. After all, the ad does not end with a white woman as the final, glowing product of the regular Dove treatment. A commenter responding to the ad seemed to think that and pointed out, "I think they meant it's for all skin types... it went from black to white to another race."

But we don't live in a colour-blind society. We live in one where skin lightening products are a huge business, whether in Nigeria or India. And the Dove ad, whatever its intention, seemed to dovetail a little too neatly with social stereotypes of race and beauty. The T-shirt peeling was a little too close to facial peels for fairness. And it did not help either that this was the company that released an ad with Before and After images where a black woman seemed to turn Latino and then white after using Dove body wash.

At that time, Dove put out a rather flustered defence saying the ad was just "intended to illustrate the benefits of using Dove VisibleCare Body Wash, by making skin more visibly beautiful in just one week."

It said all three women were meant to "demonstrate the 'after' product benefit" even though their placement in the ad certainly did not look that way.

This time Dove quickly apologized and pulled the ad without trying to mount any kind of fairness-for-all defence. Racism, like beauty, can often be in the eye of the beholder. And if an ad requires a company statement to explain why it's not being racist, then it was probably not a very effective ad to begin with.

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But we can still conceivably see that this time at least with its black-white-Asian beauty parade they truly might have been trying to do an inclusive ad that misfired. The same cannot be said about the many fair and beautiful skin lightening products in India. These products are not limited to India, though it's a 400 million dollar market here according to The Atlantic.

A star like John Abraham can use a face wash and do it everyday on our TV screens. And it would be passed off as a cultural preference rather than a racist stereotype of beauty.

They are deliberately and unapologetically driving home the point that fair is always better, that their products are meant to lighten and whiten. In India, an ad which shows a dark-skinned model turn fair after using a body wash would be par for the course. A star like John Abraham can use a face wash and do it everyday on our TV screens. And it would be passed off as a cultural preference rather than a racist stereotype of beauty on par with those in the West who rush to tanning parlours to get a bronzed tan.

Except as Kavitha Emmanuel of the Dark is Beautiful campaign said "I'm not going to be treated differently because I've tanned my skin."

Yes, it's true companies like Unilever are meeting a market demand. They are not responsible for creating it anymore than Shah Rukh Khan is responsible for men wanting to be fair and handsome. What can all our Fair and Lovelies do after all in a culture that still demands that brides have fair skin in matrimonial ads. This is a society in which we routinely say, "She's pretty even though she is dark" and genuinely think we are paying someone a compliment.

Nandita Das told DesiYup.com that every article about her begins with "dark and dusky as if without that I am incomplete." Kareena Kapoor on the other hand is never described as the "fair and beautiful Kareena".

This is a society in which we routinely say, "She's pretty even though she is dark" and genuinely think we are paying someone a compliment.

This is a country where our biggest stars are not embarrassed to be brand ambassadors for lightening creams. This is a country where we even saw a line of body washes and creams to make vaginas lighter and then tighter, a double whammy of pleasure as it were. And it was sold as empowering women (for the pleasure of men). Underarms, vaginas, nothing is exempt from the curse of darkness. Every nook and corner of the body must be made fair and beautiful. As Rajyasree Sen observed, in a country where girls risked being killed off as a foetus, women were being told to "tighten, whiten and lighten up."

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It's not just about the pretty bride who needs to seduce her man anymore. What's worse is our companies sell that fairness as a prerequisite of success for the independent-minded achiever.

As Deepanjana Pal writes, "Nowadays, the person who needs fair skin is the woman who wants a job, the athlete who wins a tournament, the consummate professional that stands on her own two feet... They show working women who are successful and tell the viewer that the critical component of their success is that their appearance is acceptable to men."

Abhay Deol once called out many of his colleagues for endorsing these products even though the Advertising Standards Council of India banned ads depicting dark-skinned people as inferior in 2014. Deol wrote, "Advertising preaches that we would get a better job, a happier marriage and more beautiful children if we were fair. We are conditioned to believe that life would have been easier had we been born fairer."

The ads didn't create the demand for fairness. The removal of the ads won't end the stigmatization of dark skin.

The ads didn't create the demand for fairness. The removal of the ads won't end the stigmatization of dark skin. But there's no need to feed into that stigmatization either, that there's no need to cash in on our insecurities about something like skin colour.

In a sense, that Dove ad touched that already tender point of insecurity. But to be fair, they were probably trying to say something else altogether. It just came out horribly wrong. Unfortunately our fair and lovely Indian companies have no such excuse. They out-Dove Dove any day and very deliberately so.

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