Sixty years may have passed since the end of the Raj, but "whites" continue to colonise India’s hearts and minds. Few things reflect this better than the unremitting mania for fair skin.
The complexion complex has spawned a multi-crore-rupee fairness cream industry, which survives entirely on a “superstition”, not to mention the booming careers of hundreds of advertisers and fair-skinned models and actors.
The obsession with a fair complexion did not begin with colonialism. In pre-colonial India, fair skin “signified that one did not work in the sun [or] engage in manual labour and was of superior social status,” said Evelyn Nakano Glenn, director of the Centre for Race and Gender, University of California, Berkeley.
When the British colonised India, they “increased (the) colour bias” because they associated the “dark skin with primitiveness and inferiority and whiteness with cultural and moral superiority,” she added.
Sixty years later, that bias continues.
It has also caused those desiring a fair complexion to abuse their skin with harmful chemicals, and that led to debilitating depression among many young men and women. In pursuit of a lighter complexion, these people could be putting their health at risk.
Asha Gautam, 36, and a mother of three, has been using fairness creams for 15 years. “Everyone wants to become beautiful,” she said. “It’s a culture.”
Gautam used to look at fair-skinned people and find them beautiful. Fairness creams turned things around for her too, she believes. “Now people say tumhara rang saaf ho gaya hai (your skin has become fairer).”
Her two daughters also use these creams. As do tens of thousands of school- and college-going girls, housewives and, lately, even young men.
“Everyone buys it,” said Sanjeev Kapoor, 28, a shopkeeper in Khidki, a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in south Delhi, when asked who buys the Fair & Lovely pouches from his store.
Kapoor purchases one, sometimes two cartons of the popular Fair & Lovely fairness cream pouches twice a week. Each carton contains 120 pouches, each costing Rs 7.
His customers come from Malviya Nagar, a middle-class neighbourhood adjacent to Khidki, as well as a slum near his store.
In 2008-09, the fairness cream market was worth Rs 1,364 crore with a growth rate of 22 per cent, says Ashish Nanda, partner, retail & consumer product practice at the audit and consultancy firm Ernst & Young.
It was worth Rs 500 crore in 2002-03 and was growing at 15 per cent, according to a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) survey. “It will be worth at least Rs 1,500 crore in 2010,” Nanda said.
The growth is fuelled by celebrity advertisements about creams that promise to make your skin “two or three times fairer” within days or weeks.
But Dipannita Sharma, a supermodel, refused to endorse a fairness cream early in her career. “I could not relate beauty to fairness. I have seen beautiful women who are dusky and wheatish,” she said.
Sharma calls the concept of relating fairness to success, and as a prerequisite for girls to “clinch a boy”, as decadent and obsolete. She wonders why people who have an influence over minds perpetuate this “superstition”.
And it isn’t a harmless superstition, says Dr Samir Parikh, psychiatrist at Max healthcare. The repeated suggestion by role models that “anything of the darker shade is probably not good enough” hurts impressionable young minds, who begin to take it as a fact.
Most patients Dr Parikh sees in a day are young women who “come for counselling for skin colour, weight and health issues. They feel they have something lacking,” he said.
Agrees Dr Deepali Batra, a psychologist at the Batra Hospital. Most children and youngsters go through “body image concerns”, she says.
Six out of every 10 of her patients are young women who feel “that maybe skin colour is an issue”.
Harmful physical effects
Some young women begin “mirror checking” after using fairness creams.
Dr Batra says if it happens compulsively, it could “limit the growth of their personality”.
But the concern is not just psychological. A senior dermatologist at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences says, on condition of anonymity, that many fairness creams use undisclosed chemicals such as hydroquinone, which leads to bleaching of the skin.
If these creams are used daily, it “causes blotchy pigmentation”, the dermatologist says.
He adds that the entire industry is built around a “marketing gimmick” — because skin colour is a result of the body’s constitution that simply cannot be changed by applying external agents such as fairness creams.
“The pigment melanin is what gives our skin its colour. Dark-skinned people have more melanin, while light-skinned people have less of it,” he said.