In many South Asian countries, such as India and Pakistan, the parents are often asked for permission before a marriage can take place. In some cases, the decision is solely in their hands. Due to the construction of gender roles in that region, oftentimes a woman’s looks are considered strongly in the process of picking a bride for one’s son. If a picture of the possible bride were provided, one wouldn’t be shocked to hear a variation of this comment, “Kitni gori hai!” This roughly translates to, “wow, look how fair she is!” The shade of skin, as many from this region know, is an indicator of both beauty and grace in a woman.
Why is this such a priority? This can be traced back to colonial British rule and other historic aristocracies, but its longevity is due to a very different reason. Enter, ‘Fair & Lovely’, a popular beauty product which uses melanin suppressors to make skin fairer. This cream was first produced by Hindustan Unilever Limited in 1975, and is now used in over 40 countries. It guarantees results in days or weeks and often has advertisements with storylines similar to this: a dark-skinned woman goes unnoticed by the crowd and is very insecure. Her friend walks into the scene looking fairer than ever and the woman is prompted to ask, “what’s your secret?” At this point, a tube of Fair & Lovely is produced and a few days later, our protagonist returns. This time she has a glowing smile, adoring attention from passersby and above all, fair skin! Her life has turned around entirely and she has everything she dreamed of, be it a great job or the perfect man. The marketing nowadays is slightly more subtle, but nonetheless clear in its intentions: fair skin is something to aspire to, at par with health and education. It is now even targeting men, as this demographic becomes more beauty conscious around the world.
This marketing is reinforced in both high society and the massive entertainment industries in South Asia. In Bollywood, many actors and actresses seem to become several shades lighter as soon as they step in front of the camera. Pakistan’s burgeoning TV Drama industry also has a clear preference for fair skin, extending even to men. A snide comment often heard in regard to celebrities is, “they’re so much darker in real life.” This further extends the myth that beautiful people must be fair. In fact, it is altogether possible that the continued celebration of people with fair skin in the media is a response to what the audience demands, given now ingrained ideas about what beauty should look like.
This, of course, informs the decisions made by marketers and rhetoricians. Often, you will find people with fairer skin having louder voices in the public arena, be it celebrities, talk show hosts or even politicians. A message delivered by a fair-skinned person is given more weight, while the message of a dark-skinned person isn’t always as potent. There can be exceptions to this, but even in the upper echelons of society, most of the time you will find people with lighter skin, whether naturally or due to cosmetic enhancements. Protagonists in most stories are fair-skinned and there are almost no stories in which the beautiful maiden is described as anything but fair. For most people, their ideal partner is therefore also on the lighter end of the spectrum. This can allow marketers and rhetoricians to easily tap into what their audience will respond to, especially where aspirations related to beauty, confidence and status are concerned.
This is a very unique ecology, as it is reinforced in so many ways, all of which feed off each other. With advertisements, descriptions in media or entertainment, social status, celebrity and even political life. All of this is easily encompassed by the incredibly effective phrase ‘fair and lovely’. Without making any further arguments, it creates a definition of beauty for all to aspire to, while subtly implying that the other option (a phrase used by those in the counter-movement to this) is ‘dark and ugly’.
Though some in these societies are trying to push back against this thinking, it is still very much endorsed by the majority and the elites. Over time, of course, the counter-movements and narratives, as well as perhaps some powerful rhetoric (such as parodies like ‘dark and ugly’) might reclaim the narrative to make beauty culture in South Asia more inclusive of all shades of skin. However for now, this Pakistani can assure you that if you want to start a cosmetics line in their part of the world, you’d be wise to pick a fair-skinned mascot.