Fairness cream ads in kids channels: ‘Nothing unfair about it!’

Can we really change our colour-conscious culture?

I have a good friend Monisha, an ardent gardener. She grows and sells ornamental plants so she is out in the sun a lot. Which means her fair skin gets a bronzed glow quite often. She doesn’t mind that at all. What irks her, however, is the reaction she gets from friends and extended family. “When they see me, they invariably exclaim, ‘Oh, you’ve become so tanned!’ I love darker skin tones and I really don’t care how tanned I get. So why do other people,” she wonders. Why indeed?

There’s this remarkable community on social media called ‘Dark is Beautiful’ (DISB) https://www.facebook.com/darkisbeautiful?fref=ts which campaigns against advertisements for fairness creams. DISB urges us to accept and be proud of our skin colour. I heartily agree, even though growing up I had my own insecurities, being a naturally-tanned person myself. But as Monisha’s experience illustrates, getting rid of our inherent colour bias is going to take a while.

Unfair and unlovely

Truth is, we live in an ‘unfair’ world. Radhika, another dear friend, learnt that on her wedding day. Radhika is a petite, wheatish-complexioned 29-year-old. Resplendent in fuchsia silk, she was standing beside her new husband receiving presents and wishes from their guests when a family friend came by. “She said I must count my blessings for netting such a fairskinned husband,” Radhika told me later. Radhika is a graduate of the London School of Economics. Both her parents are high achievers–father, a retired high-ranking Naval officer, mother, a journalist. But all that did not matter.

That ‘well wisher’ is a mother of two daughters, says Radhika. “She told me she had expected me to marry someone like me —’short and dark’, I was dumbfounded,” the new bride recalled, still fuming at the memory.

Such experiences are commonplace. I am a Malayalee with coffee-coloured skin. My husband is a Hoysala Karnataka Brahmin with his mother’s extremely fair skin. At one of the first family functions we attended together, one of his relatives told my husband graciously: “Swalpa kappu, aadhare channagidale” (she is black but beautiful, anyway). Only my husband’s glare told the tactless man that he had not paid me a compliment, but committed a faux pas.

No, my friends and I do not use fairness creams. Or feel the need to. But then we are fortunate to be surrounded by people who love us for what we are. Because now, more than ever, fairness is considered an achievement we all must aspire to. Just look at the brands of fairness creams (for women) in the market–Fair & Lovely, Fairever, White Perfect, Perfect Radiance, White Glow, Healthy White, Natural White, Blanc Expert (blanc means white in French), Fine Fairness, Pearl Perfect. And then there are creams aimed at men. Some brands even come with a ‘shade’ card – so you can check just how ‘white’ you’re becoming, week after week.

User, harm thyself, knowingly

Why do we use such creams, given that research proves they are potentially quite harmful? Recently, I came across an article by a respected facial plastic surgeon who categorically says: “Some active ingredients used in publicly available skin-whitening products can cause skin cancer, liver damage, kidney damage or poisoning…” Read the full article here:


Yet, so many women continue to have different ‘brightening’ day and night creams which they then use daily.

 Are children fair game too?

Let me ask you how ethical is it to bombard young children with fairness cream advertisements? My son is a Pogo fan, like millions of children across India. He has seen advertisements for White Tone ‘instant’ fairness powder aired during Chota Bheem episodes. Furious with such irresponsible advertising, I lodged an online complaint with the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) in June this year urging ASCI to block fairness cream advertisements on childrens’ channels.

In July, I got a response from ASCI. This is what they mailed me: (Note: the capitalisation is theirs, not mine)

Your Complaint regarding White tone face powder with the tracking code 613f319eea27 has been processed with Final Complaint Number C.5057. You can check the status of your complaint on track complaint page. Thank you for having referred this complaint to us. The complaint was considered by the Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) at their meeting. As per their decision, the complaint HAS NOT BEEN UPHELD. The CCC viewed the TVC and concluded that the messages conveyed in the TVC were not objectionable. Also, the CCC did not consider that the ad should be restricted to Adult channels only. The complaint was NOT UPHELD. Assuring you of our services in the pursuit of Self-Regulation in Advertising.”

ASCI says it is perfectly okay to expose vulnerable children to advertisements where adults are shown applying fairness creams to feel self-confident, feel beautiful. And never mind what those little girls and boys will think when they see their own father or mother applying a fairness cream, day after day, twice a day, for best results.

Yes, there are positive changes too. The DISB campaign is now becoming more and popular. But in our everyday lives, perhaps change will only happen when we throw away our tubes of fairness cream. And do away with the “shade card” inside our heads.

Note: Sentiments expressed in this post can also be found on my personal blog deviousways.blogspot.in

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