For as long as I can remember, on the bathroom counter, right next to my dad’s hair gels and my mom’s perfumes, there has always been a white and pink bottle of something called “Fair and Lovely”. On the front of the bottle, a smiling fair-skinned girl stands in front of her darker skin counterpart, depicting the supposed results of this cream. My parents have encouraged the use of this cream ever since my brother and I were children, as well as other skin lightening “home remedies” that have been passed down from generation to generation, such as washing one’s face with milk or preparing a lightening turmeric face mask. Their use of the word “remedy” itself insinuates that they believe there is something wrong that needs to be fixed.
“Fair and Lovely” is a succinct phrase that encapsulates the issue of colorism which has been deeply rooted in Indian society for centuries. From the Bollywood movie industry to the modeling industry to Indian magazines, “Fair” has always been associated with “Lovely”. Being fair is something to be desired and maintained, whereas being of a darker skin tone is considered “inferior” and burdens individuals, especially women, with many issues when seeking a job or even marriage.
Growing up in an Indian household with immigrant parents, I was constantly exposed to this colorist mentality. At our family parties, all of the adults would play Hindi music, songs with titles such as “Gori Gori” (White White) and “Chittiyan Kalaiyan” (White Wrists) and lyrics like “Chura ke dil mera goriya chali” (A fair skinned girl is leaving after stealing my heart) and “Arre gore gore mukhde … be my love” (Hey white fair faces … be my love). Colorism is so ingrained within Indian society that even the music glorifies fair skin tones and presents their desirability. The lead actresses and actors in the Bollywood movies that I watched and idolized as a child were always fair-skinned and are even notorious for endorsing skin whitening products such as “Fair and Lovely”.
More often than I’d like, I catch myself worrying about looking too tan or staying in the sun too long. One summer, I tanned a lot from being outside constantly, and that summer, my relatives came to stay with me and my family. Immediately, I was barraged by my aunts and uncles about how they feared that I was losing my fair complexion. I began to question my self-worth and irrationally correlate beauty with fairness. The insecurity I developed attached to my skin tone has not been an easy thing to get rid of, and I am constantly trying to let go of years of conditioning, years of relatives, movies, and the media preaching to me that only “Fair” can be “Lovely”.
“Fair and Lovely” has recently changed its name to “Glow and Lovely” in an attempt to separate itself from colorism after receiving backlash about how they profit off of the insecurities of darker skinned individuals in a society that essentially worships fair skin. However, the fact is that this product, just like millions of other skin whitening products in India, promote the same colorist message whether that message is explicitly plastered on the front of the bottle or not. Indian women and men with darker skin deserve to be treated with the same amount of respect as those with fairer skin. We need to ensure that this “Fair and Lovely” message is not passed down to younger generations. This vicious cycle of older generations indoctrinating their children with the colorist mentality they adopted from their parents needs to come to an end. We need to discard the colorist mentality, replacing it with acceptance and love for all skin tones. Instead of changing the name on the bottle, we need to throw away the bottle entirely.