In a country where top policy makers cite Gandhi and Buddha to brush any allegations of racism under the carpet, it's quite paradoxical to see the business of fairness creams thriving.
The debate on fairness creams is a century-old one, beginning as early as 1919 when India got its first fairness cream in Afghan Snow, made by a Rajasthan-based perfumer ES Patanwala. But on Tuesday, a woman MP from Himachal Pradesh brought it centre stage by raising it in the Rajya Sabha.
Viplove Thakur (Congress) said, "Advertisements of products like Fair & Lovely and Ponds face creams are demeaning for women, who were developing a complex thanks to such advertisements."
Thakur called for a total ban on such products.
Later, she told that Indian Express about why she raises the issue in the Parliament. Thakur said she recently saw a woman haggling with a shopkeeper to bring down the price of a Fair & Lovely cream. When the woman realised the price was non-negotiable and beyond her budget, she felt dejected and seemed aggrieved. "I was taken aback...This woman believed the product would make her fairer and beautiful. It is very sad," Thakur said.
Watch her speech here:
What the MP said indeed holds true for a lot of women in India who are known to go into depression due to an inferiority complex over their skin colour, even going so far as to use injections to lighten their skin.
But when we ask for a ban on fairness creams, we suggest that the products are solely, or at least gravely, responsible for this. How true is that?
As per Thakur, the very concept of fairness creams is flawed because they sell a false idea to women. "India is a vast country with different geographical and weather conditions. People will have different skin colours. The basic idea of these advertisements is to create a complex in the minds of women and demean those with a darker skin colour," she told Indian Express.
But such ideas don't come from cream brands alone, surely? As gender rights activist Ranjana Kumari said in this interview, its roots run deeper. "Obsession with skin colour is a hangover of colonial past because we always thought British rulers were superior," she had said.
Others argue the bias existed long before the fair-skinned people entered India. "Yashomati maiyya se bole Nand lala, Radha kyun gori, main kyun kala" — an age-old devotional song glorying light skin is a case in point.
But Bengaluru-based Ramesh Vishwanathan, who was part of a recent campaign called 'Proud of my colour', said the fairness creams shamelessly stoke this very insecurity.
"These products might not have created the bias but they certainly exploit the vulnerability of women," Vishwanathan, who runs a natural cosmetic products unit called Banjara, told ScoopWhoop News. "They tell us fair is beautiful, which is dangerous."
This exploitation is quite obvious in the advertisements that have only gone downhill since Hindustan Unilever launched 'Fair and Lovely' - its super-successful skin-lightening cream in 1975. While other brands like FairGlow talked of 'no compromise with fair skin', Fair & Lovely changed the game by linking itself to woman empowerment.
It touched new lows and, in 2003, its infamous ad showing a woman landing a cushy job of air-hostess after using the cream created such a massive furore that the company was forced to pull down the advertisement.
If the idea itself isn't problematic enough, the veracity of the claims themselves have come under the scanner.
In November, skin and healthcare giant Emami was forced to pay up a Rs 15-lakh fine after Delhboy Nikhil Jain sued the company over "false claims" because its Fair and Handsome cream didn't make him fair.
Curiously, the company accepted that the advertisements are misleading as it told the court that their product was meant only to improve skin health and quality.
Doctors say every such claim is false.
"Nothing in the world can alter one’s skin colour permanently,” Dr Nina Madnani, consultant dermatologist with Mumbai’s PD Hinduja Hospital, told HT. " At best, one can take measures to prevent it from darkening or tanning."
Kangana Ranaut was much appreciated for refusing to endorse a fairness cream. Watch her explain why here: